Despite the rainiest, nastiest weather in recent memory, more than 80 people gathered at the W.C. Reid Center Nov. 30 for a special community meeting hosted by the Asheville City Council.
Perched on folding chairs in the auditorium, the audience, mostly residents of the neighborhoods just south of downtown Asheville, had braved the weather to learn about projects affecting their area and question their elected officials.
In a presentation early in the meeting, Robert Hardy and other residents voiced concerns about a proposed road expansion by A-B Tech that would run through Walton Park and displace a community pool. Although Hank Dunn, the school’s president, stressed that it’s only an idea at this point, that failed to placate the residents.
Council member Cecil Bothwell drew applause when he said, “I want to see us require that a new pool be in use before they close the old one.” His Council colleagues mostly declined to comment on the issue, as A-B Tech hasn't yet submitted specific plans.
As Mayor Terry Bellamy read out audience members’ questions, submitted on small index cards, some common themes emerged. Many residents said the city tends to focus on improvements benefiting more upscale areas while their neighborhoods lack much-needed recreational facilities and help with economic development. Residents also noted that they often bear the brunt of intrusive new projects by big institutions such as A-B Tech and Mission Hospital.
“Why does it seem that new projects always seem to just help the rich or the River Arts District?” read one typical question.
Council members and city staff alike cited the current financial constraints, which have ruled out things like renovating the Reid Center.
“We had $2 million; that would just start to deal with renovations needed behind the walls, not anything you could see. It just wasn't enough,” Parks and Recreation Director Roderick Simmons explained. “We have limited resources, and we have to try and spend them in the best way possible.”
Simmons also stressed that “There are no plans to take out [Walton Park]. If we were to move any city facilities, we have to replace it with an equal or better facility. Right now, the park will continue to be operated as is.”
City staff laid out the financial situation, noting that most of the area’s rapid growth has taken place outside the city limits and that Asheville lacks other significant revenue options. Hotel-tax revenues go to the Tourism Development Authority, not the city, and state law specifically prohibits Asheville from using access to water lines as an annexation tool. That leaves little money for renovating city facilities, and due to the city's budget deficit, community centers actually saw their hours cut this year.
“A lot of cities just want to be clean, safe and open,” Administrative Services Director Lauren Bradley said during the staff presentation. “Asheville has a much larger vision. We have 16 different master plans that cover everything from downtown to transportation, and these priorities for a stronger, more prosperous community include a lot of local input. But we do have these very real constraints to this bigger vision.”
Council member Esther Manheimer said that due to state-imposed restrictions, “diplomacy” is Asheville's only hope for bringing in more money. Meanwhile, Vice Mayor Brownie Newman promised that the city will float proposals to generate new revenue during the coming year.
Bigger visions aside, one obvious sore point was residents’ sense that they’re excluded when scheduled local sports leagues are using the existing community facilities. Simmons' assertion that “All our facilities currently are open to residents” drew boos, jeers and shouts of “That's a lie!” from the audience. There is a fee for renting a facility, Simmons added, but general use remains free.
After banging the gavel repeatedly, Bellamy summed up the conflict.
“Some realities are that if you look at the number of people who come into this community, this gymnasium, to play basketball and you look at who's represented on those teams, it's not a lot of people [from] this neighborhood,” the mayor said. “When their kids see that they can't play, it does create anxiety: They feel they're not getting the benefit of their own tax dollars.”
Bellamy ended the meeting by urging residents to get more involved by serving on city advisory boards so their input and concerns can be dealt with more effectively.
“We feel the anxiety you have,” she said, pointing to a number of successful community partnerships as well as work being done in the area by Asheville Green Opportunities and the local NAACP branch. “But nothing will change if people just walk away in anger.”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.