At its Nov. 27 meeting, the Asheville City Council unanimously approved a budget change to help fund the initial stages of a proposed renovation and expansion of the W.C. Reid Center for Creative Arts. Parks and Recreation Director Roderick Simmons said the move would enable the center’s “Raise the Roof at the Reid” capital campaign committee to secure $900,000 in challenge grants in a bid to turn the dilapidated, city-owned structure on Livingston Street into a state-of-the-art facility serving the largely impoverished community that surrounds it.
If those plans are realized, the improved center will one day serve up a host of recreational, educational and performing-arts programs aimed mostly at underprivileged children living in the neighborhood.
To secure the two grants, however, the committee must raise an equal amount. And with a Dec. 31 deadline looming for a $300,000 Eckerd Family Foundation grant, only $170,000 had been raised. Losing that money would imperil the project, Simmons explained, because the Eckerd Foundation grant and its matching funds would also provide the match for a $600,000 grant from the Janirve Foundation.
The Eckerd Foundation grant had previously stipulated that all matching funds had to be private dollars. But the foundation recently dropped that condition, spurring the request for city help, said Simmons.
In response, City Council reallocated $130,000 of the $455,000 already earmarked for the center in the city’s current capital budget.
Neither the scope nor the projected cost of the project will be known until the design is finalized. Due to be completed by next June, it will be based on public input and the success of ongoing fund-raising efforts, Simmons explained. At this point, cost estimates range from $2 million to $8 million.
“Our constituency depends on the Reid Center, but the Reid Center cannot depend on its constituency for its funding,” committee member Leah Karpen told Council. “So we appreciate the support of the city.”
The Asheville-based Janirve Foundation was established by the late Irving J. Reuter and his wife. The Clearwater, Fla.-based Eckerd Family Foundation is a youth-centered philanthropic organization named for the late drugstore magnate Jack Eckerd and his wife, Ruth.
Similar goals, divergent paths
Despite unanimous Council approval and strong support from the four audience members who rose to speak about the matter, sparks flew between Council member Carl Mumpower and Mayor Terry Bellamy, who prevented Mumpower from giving a PowerPoint presentation on his ideas concerning the best course for the Reid Center. The presentation, said the mayor, had not been submitted far enough in advance to add it to the agenda packet under City Council rules. Mumpower persisted, and eventually, he was allowed to leave his seat and speak as a member of the public, summarizing his ideas.
Although he voiced support for the proposed improvements and the resulting opportunities to reach inner-city youth, Mumpower said that few parents of the young people served by the center have bothered to get involved in the activities offered, either as participants or volunteers. He also encouraged the city to create a “street-safe zone” around the Reid Center targeting drugs, prostitution and general “thug” behavior, so that both the facility itself and the routes to and from it would be secure. In addition, Mumpower chided City Council for not heeding his proposals earlier this year to target and eradicate open-air drug markets, noting that illicit activity in the surrounding community is a real problem. And he argued for moving quicker on Reid Center improvements, even if it meant dipping into the city’s savings.
But that accelerated schedule would come at a price: Instead of a more expensive facility that would take much longer to plan and build, Mumpower said, “I think we should do it now and in measured form. … These children should not have to live any different than children in the Kimberly community,” (one of the city’s upscale neighborhoods).
Mumpower’s comments didn’t sit well with Bellamy, however, who disputed several of his key points in an apparent attempt to get in the last word. “To make blanket statements that parents aren’t involved isn’t accurate—it’s not true, and it’s not fair,” she declared. “Our goal is to rise together. But we can’t rise together by putting other people down.”
Bellamy also took issue with Mumpower’s comments about drugs and other public-safety and social concerns that he believes Council has sidestepped, proclaiming, “I’m not going to sit here and get beat up.” In a series of 6-1 votes over the current term—with Mumpower registering the only opposition—the Council has voted to hire more police officers and increase their pay, among other things, in an effort to make the city safer, the mayor noted. “We’re making a difference,” she said.
Nonetheless, it was Mumpower who got in the last word.
“This 6-1 Council,” he said, “has left intact an open-air drug market in that community … and I’m delighted to be [on the losing end] of that 6-1 vote.”
Holiday parade on ice
Further controversy erupted later in the evening over a request for the city to take over the annual holiday parade, held the Saturday before Thanksgiving. The Asheville Merchants Corp., which has managed the event since the 1970s, now wants to hand it off to the city, said President Tom Hallmark.
After a lengthy discussion, Council members postponed a decision, saying that other civic groups should be approached first. Hallmark said his organization has not approached other groups, believing that the city is best suited to the task.
Vice Mayor Holly Jones began by raising questions about the parade’s impact on the city’s budget. But the discussion soon turned to the potential problems posed by the parade’s inclusion of non-Christian and nontraditional participants. That troubled Council member Jan Davis, who said he’s heard complaints from constituents about such concerns as profanity and partial nudity.
“I know it sounds funny, but can we legislate morality?” wondered Davis. “It’s a thing you bring [children] to, and I’d feel some culpability there.”
City Attorney Bob Oast said that while the city could probably prevent partial nudity, constitutional freedoms would most likely preclude any further restrictions. In many cases, he said, the relatively few municipalities that manage their own parades typically encounter legal problems stemming from making their parades either too Christian or too exclusive.
“I don’t want to be the one that voted against the parade,” said Council member Robin Cape. “I’ll lay it on the line: I think the city should take over this baby.” Bellamy wasn’t so sure, but if the city did take charge of the event, she said, it should be run by a Council-appointed board that would have some accountability and give the city a direct say in how it’s managed. Even though Bele Chere is a city festival, the mayor noted, its board operates with little Council oversight and has had its own share of problems with things like rowdy behavior and public drunkenness.
“I was ready to vote for [city control],” said Jones, noting that she hasn’t encountered the problems cited by Davis. “But now I’m kind of worried about it.”
The annual event, which morphed from a Christmas parade to a more inclusive “holiday” celebration in the mid-1990s, enables all sectors of the city’s diverse community to honor the season in their own fashion—and that’s something Asheville should applaud and encourage, said Cape. That’s especially true for the city’s diverse religious population, she noted.
“I’m very proud to live in a country that accepts other religions,” Cape proclaimed. “I celebrate Christians and their right to celebrate Christmas; I salute them all. But I also love my Jewish brothers and sisters. I love my Muslim brothers and sisters, and I love my pagan brothers and sisters. Everybody has a right to have a holiday.”
Mumpower, however, maintained that the city has no business operating parades, especially ones that have “corrupted” a Christian holiday—a remark that drew a sharp rebuke from both Cape and Hallmark. Cape also objected strongly to Mumpower’s arguments and attempted to interrupt him, to no avail. The discussion, added Mumpower, only served to further illustrate why the city would be ill-advised to assume control. “It clearly illustrates we have no business here,” he said.
In other business
Interim Planning Director Shannon Tuch reported on Greenlife Grocery’s preliminary conceptual plans to further develop its Merrimon Avenue site while addressing continuing complaints about traffic and noise by the store’s Maxwell Street neighbors. Under the tentative plan, which has yet to be formally submitted to the city, the grocery would expand into what’s now the main parking lot, add a pedestrian mall, and relocate the controversial loading dock from the Maxwell Street side to the area that now houses the café. The Maxwell Street entrance would be moved, and a two-level parking deck would be built on what’s now an unpaved surface lot for employee parking.
Despite some concern about overbuilding the property, the ideas drew praise from Council members. “This is the best effort we’ve had yet to fix the problems there,” declared Mumpower.
On a 6-1 vote, City Council approved contracts with 11 construction firms to launch a major overhaul of the city’s aging water system (see “Guns and Greenbacks,” Nov. 20 Xpress). A $40 million bond issue will fund the projects, which have a combined projected cost of $35.5 million.
And on another 6-1 vote, Council members approved a plan to set aside $500,000 annually from Water Department revenues to fund water-line upgrades and extend new lines as a way to encourage infill development and affordable housing. Developers whose projects meet the city’s criteria will have access to the money on a first-come, first-served basis.
Mumpower voted against both measures, citing the city’s pending lawsuit against Buncombe County and the state over control of the water system.
Council members concurred on two other items, however. They unanimously agreed to partner with Public Interest Projects on a potential project to construct a parking garage at 51 Biltmore Ave. The site, a surface parking lot owned by the company, would create at least 500 new spaces in an area of town where parking is scarce, company President Pat Whalen explained. As envisioned, the city would own the garage and control 300 spaces for public parking; the remaining spaces would be private but might still be available to the public at certain times of day, Whalen explained.
Council also unanimously approved a plan to dispose of more than seven acres of city land at Brotherton and Virginia avenues in West Asheville. The plan calls for Habitat for Humanity to buy the land for $462,000 (the appraised price) and develop 22 affordable homes there.