Written by Hayley Benton and Jesse Farthing.
The Council of Independent Business Owners has been called a lot of things over the years.
Nan Chase’s 2007 book, Asheville: A History, describes CIBO as “an activist coalition of generally anti-government business owners” who “wrested power from the civic leaders” in the early ’90s. Indeed, few could argue that the nonprofit — whose members serve on such powerful public bodies as Asheville’s City Council and Planning and Zoning Commission, the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency’s board and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners — lacks influence. But how far does it reach? And does the group still have the kind of impact that it did in the past?
Executive Director Mike Plemmons, who’s been with CIBO since shortly after its founding in 1987, is one of only two full-time employees. “I’ve been called everything from angel to Darth Vader,” he says. “We’re never going to make everybody totally happy. We’re not in the business to make everybody happy. We’re in a business to work for business, and that’s what we do.”
Some might say that CIBO’s agenda is as secret as its membership list, but staffer Patty Beaver says the group operates under four basic tenets aimed at promoting awareness as well as activism.
“We educate our business owners about the way local government works and its effect on local businesses,” explains Beaver, who’s been with the organization for 24 years. “Secondly, we act as a conduit for the flow of business and government. We work to make Asheville and Buncombe County a better place to do business, and the last thing is we encourage business owners to serve on boards and commissions — get involved in their communities and make it a better place to be.”
Longtime community organizer Monroe Gilmour of the Swannanoa Valley Alliance for Beauty and Prosperity sharply disputes that assessment, however, declaring, “I think they block out of their minds the many important contributions government makes in the lives of our citizens. The society that would result from their being in total charge would seem to me to be barren and eventually unworkable.”
Steering public policy
CIBO’s aggressive approach to getting its members elected or appointed to public bodies whenever there’s an opening has often raised the ire of Asheville’s more left-leaning activist community.
The nonprofit’s roughly 230 members, Beaver is quick to add, don’t all share the same political and social ideals. “It’s really a mix of all different kinds of perspectives,” she says. “One of the things about business owners that I’ve learned over the years is that it doesn’t matter what side of an issue you’re on. When you’re dealing with a very specific business issue, the ground is level. … You can be the most conservative person in the world or the most liberal person in the world; when you come together on a business issue, all that is set aside. And that’s really healthy, and that’s why CIBO has been so successful over the years. … They’re all in it to make Asheville a better place for business at the end of the day.”
Founder Mike Summey says CIBO was formed in response to neighborhood groups that the business community saw as “obstructionist.” Summey, however, was battling the city over a proposed sign ordinance, and many saw CIBO as merely part of that fight.
“That was the common perception of people,” he says, “simply because at the time, I was in the sign business, and the city was enacting another sign ordinance. … But that was never the intent of it.
“Whenever the business community wanted to expand, build, put in new development, what have you, there was always this core of neighborhood coalition groups that were opposing whatever they wanted to do.”
Summey says he and 11 like-minded business owners — hoteliers, restaurateurs, developers, car dealers and so on — came together to combat what he called a “whole Council chamber of people opposing” expansion and development.
Barbara Field, who served on City Council from 1991 to 2001, was never affiliated with CIBO. But she says the group “wasn’t so much against things as much as they wanted to have control over regulation. … The Asheville neighborhood associations — even though they had very strong, positive things they wanted to do with the community — they were always against something.”
Longtime CIBO member Jerry Sternberg cites a number of historical factors that spurred the group’s activities in the early years: a small circle of elite, wealthy power brokers who belonged to the Biltmore Forest Country Club and were used to running things; a Chamber of Commerce that began tilting more toward tourism rather than recruiting industry that would pay better wages; a newly formed Economic Development Commission with the same bias; and the passage of the city’s Unified Development Ordinance, put together by people who “wanted to make it very restrictive and wanted all the power they could have to control, and it really stifled business interests here,” Sternberg asserts.
“There’s a whole body of people … who really don’t want to see anything happen in Asheville. They’ve got theirs, and they really don’t care whether new business comes in or not. A lot of them come from up North, and … once their house gets built, they don’t want anybody else to come down here.”
Against that backdrop, says Sternberg, who initially served on the Economic Development Commission, CIBO was a way to keep the broader business community informed.
“We had a representative within every committee meeting or city agency or county agency that would report back to the members,” the developer recalls. “If some ridiculous ordinance … was coming up, [our members] at least — way before it ever got to City Council — could say, ‘Wait a minute! How ridiculous is this?’ so [we] kill it before it ever gets out of the committee.”
Field, however, says, “I think that if you were on the neighborhood side, you probably saw CIBO as having much more influence than I did: They didn’t change my mind on anything.”
The group’s first step, says Sternberg, was encouraging local businesspeople to become part of the process. “That’s been a huge success,” he maintains, adding, “There’s more than one viewpoint. … There are spokesmen on both sides, which is a balance.”
Regulations, stresses Sternberg, must be reasonable, and CIBO lobbies for the good of the city and county. “What we are is active, interested and ever vigilant,” he declares.
The group’s regular breakfast and luncheon meetings feature guest presentations which, together with the weekly newsletter, “allow businesspeople to get concise information — accurate information — in a very busy schedule,” says founding member Mac Swicegood, a property appraiser and real estate agent. “And that information is helpful: It saves you dollars. … I don’t know where else you could get that information in such a concise format, in a minimal amount of time.
“What we’re all looking for,” he continues, “is the bottom line: Not only to help your business but to help the area you live in. It opened a lot of people’s eyes on how to be involved in their communities, and it gave them an opportunity. So if they had a problem they could either put up or shut up.”
Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell has had his share of differences with the group. “They tend to cast me as some sort of extreme liberal, and they are, if anything, extreme conservatives, so it’s just a different worldview,” he observes. Nonetheless, Bothwell commends CIBO for tracking local issues. “Frankly, I’m glad that they inform their members what we’re doing. It would be nice if more organizations tuned in.”
And CIBO member David Gantt, who is chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, says, “I’m in a lot of groups. I think it’s important for an elected official to hear the whole gambit of opinions in Buncombe County, so you make good decisions and have good information to make those decisions.”
It’s the membership
City planner Joe Minicozzi of Urban3, a private consulting firm, says CIBO’s newsletters sway hard to the right, with Plemmons’ own viewpoint evident throughout.
Minicozzi, who also serves on Asheville’s Planning and Zoning Commission, says that while he sees eye to eye with CIBO members on important development issues such as the controversial Interstate 26 connector, he and the organization’s board have different ideas about how to get the long-delayed project done, causing Plemmons to paint him in a less than flattering light in the group’s newsletters. After Minicozzi voiced support for a billboard ban in March of 2012, for example, the newsletter reported: “We appreciate Minicozzi’s efforts and were unaware that he is now a billboard ban expert. Since his previous efforts have been to modernize the I-26 connector construction which — due largely to his efforts — may be built in 35-40 years if the project is on the fast track.”
Seeking a plan for the connector that would have less impact on adjacent neighborhoods, Minicozzi says he made upward of 200 presentations to community groups, but when he showcased his ideas at a CIBO breakfast, he was “chewed out” by Swicegood.
“I think they were just thinking we’re in there to stop the project,” Minicozzi observes. “They were pissed. But I agree with them: It shouldn’t take so long to get that stupid connection done. It’s absolutely stupid.
“In a way, I empathize with CIBO and their ‘get the project done’ attitude,” he continues. “But when a CIBO member yelled at me at a meeting, I was kind of turned off by that. … We have to make sure this project is done right. We’re not here to stop the project or get in the way of the project: We’re here to make sure the community isn’t impacted.
“There are people in that organization that get it,” he asserts. “But far too often, what ends up happening is if you’re not in people’s clubs — for some reason, because I’m not in CIBO’s club, they think I’m a hippie or something. Look, I build cities for a living. This is what I do.”
Another CIBO member, Minicozzi notes, is David Brown, this area’s representative on the influential state Board of Transportation.
“That’s where it gets muddy,” Minicozzi continues. “This is how CIBO likes to operate. It’s nothing illegal: They’re being smart about it. They put themselves in positions of power” and can then try to influence public policy decisions. But those decisions, he maintains, are really being made by a very select group: the organization’s board of directors.
Swicegood, however, says, “The power is in the membership, and how committed they are to wanting something to change. CIBO itself doesn’t have any power at all — it’s just the people who are involved.”
A powerful board
Political activist Steve Rasmussen says he’s researched the organization extensively. “You talk to the rank-and-file CIBO members, and they really are all over the spectrum,” he says. “But that doesn’t matter, because those 230 members don’t have any say in what the CIBO leadership does.”
As evidence of CIBO’s indifference toward the small businesses they purport to represent, Rasmussen, a former Xpress reporter, cites the group’s vehement support for the Tunnel Road Wal-Mart Supercenter during a bitter 2002 fight to get the massive project approved.
“Because Wal-Mart, obviously, they come in and out go the small businesses. Well, CIBO didn’t care about the small businesses. They were absolutely, vocally, vociferously advocating on behalf of Wal-Mart at every meeting. CIBO is to the Chamber of Commerce here as the tea party is to the GOP,” Rasmussen asserts. “They’re the extremists.”
“Listen, most city managers, most county managers work for the number of votes that’s the majority,” Plemmons points out. “There are 13 members on my board. If seven of them come in and say, ‘It’s going to go this way,’ that’s the way it’s going to go. I work for a board; they work for a board.”
CIBO’s board of directors contains several familiar names. Jan Davis is an Asheville City Council member; Karl Koon and Vonna Cloninger serve on the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency’s board.
“It runs just like any other organization,” Plemmons continues. “I am not beholden to anybody except my membership. … My members support me and Patty, not the government. Does that make us anti-government? It may on some issues. It may make us pro-government for something that they are passing or considering. We are fiercely independent in the best possible way.”
Gilmour, echoing Rasmussen’s sentiments, says, “I think the community reacted to CIBO, when it started, the way many people reacted to the tea party’s launch. Both organizations seemed angry, anti-government and intent on getting their way. They seemed so wedded to their idea of the free-market system that working in collaboration or trying to make a better community appeared an anathema to them.
“As a community organizer, I’ve had to confront government policy many times,” notes Gilmour. “But it’s with a sense of working to make that government better — with a sense that government is truly of the people and is working for us.
“On the other hand, CIBO, like the tea party, appears to me to simply want government eliminated or totally in its pocket. To me, both organizations lack a sense of community spirit.”
Many CIBO members dispute that assessment. “I think our community is a whole lot better because of the Council of Independent Business Owners than it ever would have been,” Swicegood declares.
CIBO’s greatest hit
The group’s greatest accomplishment, says Summey, came in 1993, when four CIBO-backed candidates — a voting majority — were elected to City Council. Hours after being sworn in, they voted to fire City Manager Doug Bean; in response, an opposition movement tried to unseat those Council members.
“A recall petition just kept slamming these Council members for why they fired the city manager, who was well thought of,” says Summey. “But … in the process of running the city, he was doing things that were totally not right.”
While researching the city budget, Summey asserts, he found a check written for a police car that actually went to the Planning Department. “There was no asset management to find out where things were going,” Summey says.
The well-connected opposition group, he continues, made it hard to get both sides of the story heard.
“There were stories in the paper about how bad these councilmen were,” he explains. “But there were never stories put out about these things that I’m talking about. If Council takes that action, and that action is being portrayed as unfair — unless you’ve got a way of getting out the real reason behind it, the message from the other side stays there.”
The recall petition, says Rasmussen, “didn’t succeed, but none of those guys got re-elected, so in the long run it did succeed.” Amid general uproar, a competing recall petition targeted Field and Mayor Russ Martin, who had opposed Bean’s firing.
The CIBO-dominated Council then appointed Jim Westbrook city manager. Rasmussen describes Westbrook as “pro-development, anti anything else.”
“When they finally replaced [Westbrook], they had to do a much more public process, with the whole city weighing in,” continues Rasmussen. “And then they got Gary Jackson in.
“Since then, almost all the big stuff the city does, they do with public process. They found that really works well to get a diversity of voices and not be dominated by CIBO. Now they can say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got some CIBO members on these focus groups, but we’ve also got some activists.’”
Some observers say CIBO’s impact on local politics has declined over the last 10 years or so.
“My impression is that they had quite a bit of influence some years ago and that, as their membership has aged, their influence has waned,” says Bothwell. “I think their day has passed. I really think their core group is aging out of active participation.”
Minicozzi, though, doesn’t see it. “I think they’re still active; I think they’re laying low,” he suggests. “They do have legitimate beefs. I actually see eye to eye with them on 40 percent of what they talk about. That’s what kills me: I can understand them.
“They can have a voice, but they don’t need to be the voice. We need to have a process where everybody gets heard. Let the community decide where we need to go.”
For his part, Plemmons acknowledges that things have changed, saying it was “definitely a different day in the early days of CIBO. We’re more directed toward issues and laws that will impact membership,” he explains. “At the beginning, it was pretty much everything that could affect business. Now it’s directed to individual ordinances that may have an effect on some of our members.
“We are in the trenches,” he notes. “We’re having to deal with a lot of people who are visionary and a lot of people that don’t want to change, but unfortunately, they are going to have to change no matter who they are. We’ve changed over the years.
“It’s not so much about the numbers [of members and putting them in positions of power] as it is trying to make sense of what you’re doing.”
As for CIBO’s impact on the community, Plemmons says he thinks City Council knows more about small businesses’ needs than they did in the past and that individual elected officials tend to pay more attention to budgets now, making Asheville a better place for businesses.
Gantt, too, says, “I think CIBO has been very effective at getting their message across. They are one of the more aggressive groups; many times we didn’t see eye to eye.”
Gilmour, on the other hand, says CIBO “used a take-no-prisoners approach, which was intimidating to many people, but it was almost like standing up to a bully. … They end up, to me, looking fairly shallow and ineffective. I think if they had been successful we would not have the kind of City Council we’ve had for the last 10 years.”
“I used to think of Asheville as this butterfly enclosed in this really hard chrysalis, trying really hard to break out,” he says. “But this conservative, right-wing chrysalis really held it tight. It’s only been in the last 15 years, tops, that there’s been any kind of a crack in that shell of concealed and consolidated power.”
Field, meanwhile, says, “I never saw them as ‘the big, bad CIBO’; I saw them as a group of people with an agenda. They weren’t scary to me. … I think it’s a perception of CIBO that is much stronger than the reality.”
Plemmons, understanding this perception, adds, “Some people fear us a little bit. Some people want to kick us around a little bit. That’s just the way it is. … Some people disagree with business. Some people don’t want business. We get it — we’re going to have people that love us and people that don’t love us. And you just go on.
“It’s been a great place to work, really. It’s demanding, the hours can be very long, but it’s rewarding.” In the end, he says, “I really get a feel for the community.”