At a meeting Thursday morning, March 14, members of the downtown Asheville Business Improvement District board harshly criticized Asheville City Council for delaying approval of the BID’s proposed bylaws and expressing “disappointment” that the board hadn’t also submitted a detailed budget.
During both a March 12 work session and the formal meeting that followed it, Council members expressed displeasure at the lack of a specific budget, setting a March 18 deadline for the board to submit one and delaying approval of the bylaws until it does. Council will consider the BID’s bylaws, budget, and tax assessment at its March 26 meeting; the tax assessment would have to be approved by then to be levied this year.
Council’s initial approval of the BID — a service nonprofit that would be funded by a special tax on downtown properties — was controversial in the first place. A mix of activists, downtown residents and business owners asserted that the tax was unnecessary and would place too much power in the hands of a non-elected board. Supporters say the BID will help clean up downtown and ensure its future prosperity. At that point, Council approved the overall idea but stipulated that the city appoint a third of the organization’s board.
Funded by a seven cents per $100 levy on all downtown properties, as well as by a share of sales tax revenue and funds (about $85,000 each) it has requested from the city and Buncombe County’s coffers. The BID would have a budget of around $450,000 and would likely contract with a private company to provide increased cleaning and environmental services downtown.
At a special meeting in the basement of the Grove Arcade Thursday morning, BID board members bristled at Council’s skepticism and contemplated abandoning the project entirely.
“Frankly, I’m just not sure we can come to an understanding,” said Kim MacQueen, vice president of Gold Hill Associates. “There’s just this bait-and-switch game.”
“We’ve said from the beginning that Council doesn’t get it, and I still don’t think they get it,” Byron Greiner of the Asheville Downtown Association said. “I had a talk with [Council member Chris Pelly] and he said that we didn’t present a budget and we’re not elected officials. They want to control it, and I’m not comfortable if they create this taxing district themselves. I think we’re kidding ourselves; they’ll manipulate this.”
Others took a somewhat more conciliatory tone.
“This money is our money,” John McKibbon, head of the McKibbon Hotel Group, said. “The city feels like it’s their money and they’re going to dole it out to us. It’s a little distasteful, but I think that’s the only way the deal’s going to get done. We need to show them what we can do, and things will get easier once we prove ourselves.”
“Unless we think we can get enough voluntary contributions to clean up downtown, we have to go through the city, and the city holds the purse strings,” Mary Robinson, an attorney with Roberts and Stevens, said. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing; that just means that what we propose to them should be the best way possible, be as open and public as possible. If the public supports our way of doing it more than the city’s, then the city’s going to come around to our way of doing it.”
“I felt that despite the usual political passion play, we got what we wanted,” Dwight Butner, owner of Vincezo’s Restaurant and a member of the Downtown Commission, said of the Council meeting.
But he also said the BID board should make it clear to the city that “as a practical matter, if they come back and nail us on this, they’ve just alienated the only business entity that’s been remotely supportive of them in this water fight. … They have guts; I don’t know if they have that kind of guts. I think there will be political consequences.”
Rick Jackson, an attorney with McGuire, Wood & Bissette, urged board members to think about their “walk-away point,” when they would abandon the BID proposal entirely.
MacQueen compared Council’s behavior to an abusive relationship, saying she wrote her resignation letter after the March 12 Council meeting.
“We’ve been here for decades downtown. I’m not an elitist; I bought a cheap condo downtown in 1994 because it was the cheapest place to live, and downtown continues to be filthy,” MacQueen said. “Everyone around this table operates businesses in the black: The idea that we can’t take our money and manage a program to clean up downtown has pushed me over the edge.
“I’ve likened it to someone dating an abusive partner: It’s not going to get any better,” she continued. “Once you marry them, the writing is on the wall: How they behave now is how they behave later. It really, truly terrifies me, this idea that the city wants to control our money because they’re broke.”
Jackson wanted to talk to Council members such as Gordon Smith and Pelly, whom he viewed as swing votes. “Hell, I’ll talk to [Cecil] Bothwell,” a staunch opponent of the BID, added Jackson. He also said he was willing to give the city more board appointments, saying they wouldn’t necessarily be “puppets” for Council’s agenda, and that the wealthier ones in particular will act independently (the board reserves three seats for property owners with more than $3 million in holdings).
He added that he felt Council member Marc Hunt had been quite receptive, but Mayor Terry Bellamy didn’t “even understand what the concept is. She doesn’t get it, and I don’t think she ever will.
“Then, if they walk away, it won’t be because we didn’t try: It will be for some bullshit political reason that they were abusing what we’ve done all along,” Jackson said. “We need to circle up and reach out to a couple more people as one last hurrah on this.
“I’ve never really trusted the city to deal with my money, as they’ve shown in the past,” David Brown of Brownstone Realty said, noting that his original skepticism had faded when he saw what BIDs could accomplish. But “The whole thing, in my mind, was that we collected the money — we did it the way we thought best.”
“We’ve reached the point where we have no more negotiating time anymore,” board Chair Susan Griffin said. “We will present on March 26, and they will decide, and it will be what it will be. I truly believe that in the end they’ll make changes we’ll find totally unacceptable.”
At Council’s budget work session, Council members also broached the idea of exploring other options for improving services in neighborhoods, including downtown. BID members found that “chilling,” in MacQueen’s words, fearing that Council will pass the proposed tax but bypass the BID and simply let the city provide the services.
“The city should be ashamed of what it looks like right now: We’re known as ‘Trashville,’ and every time I go out to eat I get panhandled,” John Monroe, of Southern Development of N.C., said. “We’re looking at a money grab right now. … I don’t trust them to actually administer that money in a way we, the payees, feel it should work. I wish we could vote these guys out, but we all know that’s never going to happen; there’s so many special-interest groups.”
“I wanted to be on this board because I was going to pay a lot of money, myself, into a program that’s going to fund things that will help the whole of downtown,” Karen Tessier of Market Connections said. “If we get to this place where all this board is, is an advisory board to the city taking the money, using the money for an agenda they determine and lay at our feet in front of our neighbors, our pocketbooks, I can’t do this.
“I’m going to be real upset if someone takes my money and goes and does something that I don’t have input on,” she added.
Butner wanted “to move forward in a constructive partnership,” but he believes the matter boils down to “If we’re going to voluntarily put a tax on ourselves, we will be in control of the money: That’s it. If we cannot go out and suggest we’re willing to spend $450,000 out of our pockets, and be able to direct that under the supervision of Council, I will walk.”
“It’s a question of trust: We have every reason not to trust them, and they don’t trust us,” Michael Wood of Western Carolina Rescue Ministries said. “The thing they would love to take place, and I think they’re sending a tremendous amount of signals, is that they’d love to see us walk away.” He advocated “doing everything we’re supposed to do and letting them make that decision” while rallying BID supporters to “show up in so much force and make the decision political on their heads.”
“There is no way we’re going to present a budget to them in two weeks that they’re going to approve,” asserted Griffin, who also wrote a resignation letter after Tuesday’s Council meeting. “They think we’re irresponsible, they think our motives our bad, and they don’t think we’re intelligent.”
“The process we’re going through here is absurd,” Butner said. “But our only option at this point is to act in good faith.”
Griffin said Council’s delay last year in voting on the initial BID proposal had made it hard for the group to get its board, bylaws and budget ready in a timely manner.
She said board members should convey to Council that if they don’t get an up-or-down vote March 26, “We will publicly humiliate them by standing up and walking out. They have to understand that this is a partnership, and we are not their puppet.
“Much as they don’t trust us to run a $450,000 cleaning service, we don’t trust them with our money,” she continued. “We’re willing to walk out if they show us they can’t be trusted. That’s a very harsh thing to say, and it’s going to look terrible in print, but I’m willing to say it because I don’t care anymore.”
The board agreed to go forward, submit the budget on March 18 and present their proposal at the March 26 Council meeting. At the board’s next meeting, it will consider possible revisions to the bylaws to make them more acceptable to City Council.
“It’s like the birth of a child,” Butner told Xpress as the meeting ended. “There are labor pangs.”
The BID board’s next meeting is at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 21, in the basement conference room in the Grove Arcade.