City, county officials ruminate on budget “sugar” and economic peril

Early this morning, in the food court of the Biltmore Square mall, members of the Council of Independent Business Owners gathered to hear elected officials from Buncombe County and the city of Asheville summarize their situations and goals.

The setting was perhaps appropriate, as the mall has seen businesses leave and many spots in the food court were shuttered. The economic downturn was a major topic of discussion.

Asheville City Council member Jan Davis said the financial situation has put the city in sometimes dire strait — facing a $5 million deficit — and he believes the situation could be spreading.

“Merrimon Avenue is blighted, it’s shutting down, Patton Avenue west of the river is blighted, the blight is spreading to downtown,” Davis observed. “I’ve seen downtown revive. We don’t want to go back to the other end of the scale, and it can happen.”

Davis also called for cooperation with the county and took aim at comments by Buncombe commissioners’ Chair David Gantt to the Asheville Citizen-Times that the city couldn’t expect “a sugar daddy” in the county.

“Beyond the rhetoric and the ‘sugar daddy’ comments, we need trust and cooperation,” Davis said, adding that the mayor and Council are “asking for partnerships, opportunities that benefit both our citizens. Our doors are open.”

In response to CIBO members advising the city to cut more items they view as frivolous, Davis defended city spending on buses and greenways, asserting that buses help workers get to their jobs and “without them, you’ll have a whole other problem,” while “ when you can go down and see 5,000 people using the greenways on the weekend; that indicates something that our citizens support.”

He also defended a controversial vote against adopting domestic partnership benefits in concept but stated he was against how the measure had been raised.

“It was a process thing, not a morality issue; I didn’t like how it got there,” Davis said. “The city’s doing an assessment of its health care costs and I think it would have been less divisive to bring it up then.”

He also said that while no one on Council wanted to raise property taxes, it might have to be considered. “I don’t advocate tax increases right now, but the time may come when that’s necessary to keep this a good place to live.”

Davis’ description of the budget situation stood in contrast to that of the county, as Vice Chair Bill Stanley, who took the podium afterwards, observed, “We’re in pretty good shape. We don’t have a deficit. We have a good fund balance.”

Not everything is sweetness and light, however, and Stanley noted that social services expenditures for the county have drastically increased due to the economy, with the demand for food stamps tripling. He’s also concerned that the state could raid more county funds and sources of revenue to meet its own budget demands. “The state is hurt, and they’re going to hurt us.”

For those reasons, he said, he advocated the county stay away from “rules and regulations that limit people and businesses getting work,” and while endorsing more city-county cooperation, he said the county’s fund balance wasn’t the way to do it.

“Our sugar might just taste like licorice,” he cautioned.

Last in front of the gathered business people was Council member Gordon Smith, who built on the themes of city-county cooperation and says he sees potential for Asheville becoming a “high-tech regional center.”

“There are things we can do as a city to make ourselves more attractive so that when businesses like Google are looking to site new projects, Asheville is an attractive place,” he said. “If you look at the cities where these high-tech jobs are concentrated in — San Francisco, Austin, Minneapolis — these are places that are inclusive, diverse. They have multiple modes of transportation and housing you can afford.”

Specifically, Smith said he was communicating with Council members about how to best pursue getting one of Google’s recently proposed super-fast broadband networks, and he added that it will take the cooperation of multiple county governments, the city and organizations like CIBO for the push to have a chance of success.

Smith also said that the city plans to deal with its budget situation by cutting costs and raising fees, and that raising property taxes is a last resort.

“We need to have exhausted every last possibility before we even look at that,” he said. “Because that’s something that hits everybody and it hits people hard.”

—David Forbes, staff writer


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13 thoughts on “City, county officials ruminate on budget “sugar” and economic peril

  1. J

    I wonder if Gordon realized another connection those cities all have: major universities.

    It’s the same reason why RTP also attracts many high paying, technologically advanced jobs. There are three very solid universities within a stone’s throw of each other.

    With Warren Wilson, UNCA, Montreat, AB-Tech, WCU, and a bevy of community colleges, Asheville has the potential to draw many high tech jobs, as we have solid educational facilities.

    Pretty crafty of ol’ Gordo to use job recruitment as a way of pushing personal policy. I don’t think Glaxo Smith Kline chose RTP because of it’s greenways or its avantgarde bus system.

    What does Davis mean by saying Merrimon is blighted? It seems pretty robust to me.

  2. AS

    I don’t get the “Merrimon Avenue is blighted” comment, either. If it were maybe the traffic would ease, though.

  3. UNaffiliated Voter

    I hope the esteemed Councilman Smith can realize that we have NO WHERE NEAR the DENSITY of the cities he mentioned???

    ‘J’ you are correct…the proximity of the RTP limits WNC ability to compete in that arena…

    Merrimon blighted? West Patton REALLY is…seems like all those commercial spaces would get upgraded at some point…hoped the RUSH Fitness Complex would jumpstart gentrification.

  4. Betty Cloer Wallace

    RTP had a “rain man” in Jim Hunt who recruited many of those large companies (some even company headquarters), and the planners made the whole area look like a greenway by leaving the terrain natural. Asheville/Buncombe needs a good “rain man” and a grand vision like that, one that can help solidify our area as a good place to live without negatively affecting our historic and cultural identity.

    We need to think of ourselves with more of a can-bake-it-ourselves attitude, as Gordon Smith suggested, rather than sounding like welfare cases with our hands out begging. Art on city buses and employee partner benefits are mere crumbs compared to the larger pie, and we seem to be spending far too much time fighting over crumbs.

    I wondered, too, as J mentioned, why Jan Davis thinks Merrimon is “blighted” and “shutting down.” There are a few empty spaces, but it seems robust, if not thriving, especially when compared with other corridors.

    And as for Biltmore Square Mall, it is not typical or representational of the regional economy. It has its own set of problems that preceded the most recent economic downturn.

  5. AvlResident

    Betty Cloer Wallace hits the nail on the head about the need for “rain men” (and women) and the “crumbs” that our city council is fighting over.

    Terry Sanford also had a significant role in the development of Research Triangle Park.

    Asheville/Buncombe seems to be seriously devoid of leadership now. Do any of our state representatives actually live in the city and have the city’s interests in mind? Or is it only the county’s interests – and political clout – that get considered?

    Jan Davis said, “Our door is open.” That sounds like the city council is waiting for county officials and state officials to come to them with suggestions about how the city can be helped.

  6. Politics Watcher

    Do either Bruce Goforth or Patsy Keever live within the city limits? Other of our state senators and representatives? Perhaps the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods could organize some candidate forums (and incumbent forums) to ask our reps how they are going to help the city down in Raleigh? Who speaks for Asheville (and not just Buncombe County) in the legislature?

  7. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Asheville/Buncombe could take some lessons from New Orleans, a city that has historically recovered, over and over, from all sorts of devastation. New Orleans has done it by being INCLUSIVE of everyone regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or cultural heritage—not by having small narrow-minded people try to set the agenda for the city by EXCLUDING people.

  8. I too question the “Merrimon is blighted” statement. sure there are some empty buildings, and it looks like the Deal Buick site is going vacant gain…most of the vacant buildings are obsolete, ticky tacky looking places. Newer buildings look ok at htis point.

    This is radical, and it’s not going to happen, but I say: bulldoze those obsolete buildings, jackhammer the parking lots, get back to the soil and let nature take over.

  9. Reality Check

    Davyne, the idea of making Merrimon a beautiful corridor with trees and park-like areas interspersed among the commercial buildings (and no power/telephone lines), rather like W.T. Weaver is a great idea. Any ideas about wealthy philanthropists to buy up all the vacant property and make this happen? At least the Rhodes family “donated” their still-wooded property (that is, they received many millions of dollars directly from UNCA, plus another several million dollars in charitable contribution tax credits.)
    Merrimon Ave is going to be an everlasting problem for the city.

  10. I was just on Merrimon……there are just a few closed down business…no more than there were in the during the big bubble.

    The most everlasting problem see is, it’s too narrow. Those light poles are ominously close to the street. And it’s too busy. It’s now where near as tacky as Patton, though. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it doesn’t turn into Patton # 2.

  11. J


    Merrimon is about to get busier. There’s a current rezoning application in to allow a 60 unit development on the two acres up behind the Post Office.

    The irony is that the current zoning allows for the undeveloped property to be used as a park and/or greenway, whereas the new zoning sought does not allow for park or greenway usage.

  12. J


    I believe Mountain Housing is the developer. So my guess is that it will be 60 units of workforce housing.

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