Asheville City Council: Staying centered

  • Sidewalk ordinance gets upgrade
  • City champions recognized

The final Council meeting in an election year is bound to be a curious beast. Even as new Council members are brought in, the holiday break looms; it's also the last chance to tackle anything that has to be addressed before the end of the calendar year. And with the January retreat still ahead, the incoming Council members have had only limited orientation concerning key issues. As a result, these year-ending sessions tend to be mere formalities, with any serious controversy postponed until after the holidays.

But that's not how things played out Dec. 15 when, at their very first meeting, Council members Cecil Bothwell, Esther Manheimer and Gordon Smith were treated to a nail biter of a discussion, with construction of the long-debated addition to the W.C. Reid Center for Creative Arts hanging in the balance. Due to some empty Council seats, the project barely mustered the four votes needed for approval.

The cost to the city of adding a new performance facility and classroom space to the Livingston Street recreation center has fluctuated over the past year, as grant funds have appeared and then vanished. A $500,000 state grant was withdrawn in November because the project had not advanced to the required point. And discussions about the cost and whether it would be better just to renovate the existing gym kept the project bogged down during 2009. The current numbers show a total budget of $1.96 million. And with $133,000 left on hand from the project's original budget and $738,000 in private pledges at stake, that would still leave the city committing to borrowing nearly $1.1 million at a time when money is very tight.

Back in October, Council had approved both the financing plan and a construction master plan on a 5-2 vote. Now, however, they were confronted with an actual contract (with the Asheville-based H&M Constructors). And with Mayor Terry Bellamy attending a holiday reception at the White House, the head count was already short. Then, on the advice of City Attorney Bob Oast, Manheimer asked to be recused from the vote because her employer, the Van Winkle Law Firm, represents two of the contractors who bid on the project.

That left only five Council members at the table, and Council member Bill Russell had already turned thumbs down on the financing option in October. Oast, meanwhile, reminded Council that despite the empty seats, a full majority (four votes) was still needed to carry the measure. And when Vice Mayor Brownie Newman, presiding over the meeting in Bellamy's absence, asked if the issue could be tabled until the mayor returned, Roderick Simmons, the city's director of parks, recreation and cultural arts, told him that the $738,000 in private contributions raised since 2006 would be off the table if no commitment were made by year's end.

Russell, the lone Republican on Council following Carl Mumpower's departure, stuck to his position that the price tag had spiraled too high.

"I was in support of this, but I withdrew my support when grant money went away and the cost got too high," he noted. "I wonder if we're building something a little too glamorous. I don't think we have the money."

But Mildred Nance-Carson, who volunteers for youth programs at the center, disputed that view. "There is no glam in this building," she declared, adding that considering the state of the current gymnasium, the youths deserve a new facility. "The city just has not done a great job of keeping it up," she asserted. "We have been promised many things, none of which have happened."

To help make her case, Nance-Carson had brought along a group of Reid Center regulars.

"Without the center, most of the youth in that area have no place to go," said 16-year-old DeAngelo Brown.

"I think there's a lot of good in that place that just hasn't been seen yet," said 15-year-old Jacob Houle.

Meanwhile, Council member Jan Davis acknowledged that, despite his prior vote in support of the funding method, he'd been ambivalent all along.

"This is a difficult place to be in. We've sort of created a perfect storm without the mayor here to support this," said Davis. "I'd hate to see this thing die; I think it would be a travesty."

Newman, however, urged his colleagues to follow through in recognition of all the work that had gone into the project so far.

And after some quick calculation based on the number of daily visits to the current facility, Smith maintained that despite the increased cost, it would still be a wise investment. "It comes to $350 per kid per year," he said. "That's money well spent."

The construction contract was approved 4-1, with Russell opposed.

Where the sidewalk mends

A change in the way Asheville makes developers pay for sidewalks should enable the city to link up existing segments along major pedestrian routes, Public Works Director Cathy Ball reported. Currently, a developers who builds along a stretch of road that lacks a sidewalk must either install one or pay the city "fee-in-lieu" money. In the past, the city has been required to use those funds to install sidewalks within the same designated area as the new development. Lifting that restriction, said Ball, would reduce the number of sidewalks to nowhere. A connected sidewalk in another part of town, she noted, would be more valuable than an isolated stretch fronting a development.

And in places where sidewalks are required on only one side of the street, argued Ball, letting the fee-in-lieu burden be shared among developers of surrounding properties might encourage more of them to choose the fee option, thus furthering the city's goal of connecting existing stretches.

The measure was approved 6-0, with an amendment suggested by Manheimer that calls for reviewing the policy after one year. While the cost of building sidewalks changes over time, she said, the city's fee in lieu does not, and developers will use whichever option is cheaper at the time.

Hall of champions

The final meeting of the year is also the time when Council members take note of impressive accomplishments over the past 12 months, and they had no problem finding worthy subjects on whom to lavish praise. In September, Capt. Jeremy Edmonds of Asheville Fire and Rescue was named North Carolina Firefighter of the Year, and in a national competition to see how quickly and efficiently water department employees can tap a line, the city's men's and women's teams both won at the state level and will advance to the nationals. They all got their turn at the front of the room, along with all 40-plus members of Asheville High School's award-winning debate team, which will soon compete in the Harvard Invitational.

But the most emotional recognition went to quarterback Brandon Whiteside of the Asheville High Cougars. The senior's family has been ravaged by cancer: His grandfather died of lung cancer in 2004, his younger sister was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in 2007, and his mother was diagnosed with thyroid cancer earlier this year.

Whiteside made national news with his pledge to donate $1 of his own money to Asheville's Relay for Life cancer benefit for every yard of passes he completed during the 2009 season. Racking up 1,854 yards, he broke the school's career passing record. Whiteside's campaign also inspired other donors, who brought the total raised to $4,659.

Whiteside thanked City Council and those in attendance but also praised his teammates, saying, "Thanks for catching my passes. That also helps."

Brian Postelle can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 153, or at bpostelle@mountainx.com.

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