The Asheville Downtown Association welcomed a sold-out crowd to its March 8 State of Downtown Luncheon, held at Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville. The gathering marked the first in-person iteration of the annual event since February 2020.
“All of you reached out about 16 inches or so in front of you, and yes, it’s true: You are not looking at a monitor,” joked Bill Durr, the ADA’s board president.
The luncheon featured presentations by Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman, while ADA Executive Director Meghan Rogers highlighted results from the ADA’s 2022 survey, which gauged the concerns and sentiments of Asheville’s downtown business community. (The full survey results are available at avl.mx/bd3.)
This year’s survey had 101 responses from downtown business owners and employees, with retail, art galleries and food and beverage industries making up nearly 60% of total respondents. Just over half of participating businesses were considered small, with 10 or fewer employees.
Over half of respondents indicated that their place of business had matched or exceeded pre-pandemic revenue levels, while 18% said that sales were still down by up to 10%. And while about half of respondents said their businesses were back to being fully staffed, roughly 20% said they were still struggling to fill open positions.
Homelessness and safety
Reducing homelessness in the central business district was at the top of survey respondents’ concerns for 2022. Just over half said they would support a low-barrier shelter, with another 27% saying they weren’t sure about the idea.
Nearly 50% of respondents also indicated they would consider hiring someone who was either currently or formerly homeless, as long as a program was in place to support both the employee and the employer; 37% of respondents said they were unsure. “To me, that says we need more education and discussion around this issue,” Rogers said.
And 75% of survey takers indicated support for alternative approaches to issues that are often related to homelessness, such as Buncombe County’s Community Paramedic Program.
“We all know homelessness is a complex issue, and it can be quite polarizing in our community. I sometimes see that the business community is unfairly labeled as uncompassionate,” said Rogers. “But what I find, when I read through our survey comments and when I talk to people, is that most businesses fall somewhere in the middle of those polarizing opinions.”
Safety and reducing criminal activity downtown closely followed homelessness among the top concerns. Survey respondents were asked to evaluate downtown in terms of how safe they felt. The average score was 3.5 out of 5 for perceived safety during the daytime, dropping to 1.9 out of 5 at night.
Criminal activity, substance use and a decreased police presence were identified as safety concerns, but pedestrian safety, speeding vehicles and the need for more lighting were also noted.
Restrooms and cleanliness
“Cleanliness is definitely becoming more and more of an issue,” said Rogers, who noted that survey respondents scored Asheville’s downtown a 2.2 out of 5 on that front.
More than 70% of those surveyed said they supported a 24/7 permanent public restroom facility downtown, while another 15% agreed with the notion as long as that facility was properly maintained and monitored.
Asheville closed its 24/7 restroom at 29 Haywood St. in spring 2020 and has yet to reopen the facility, citing concerns around cost and maintenance. Manheimer said that the city was currently considering using a portion of its American Rescue Plan Act funds for the purchase and installation of a Portland Loo, a standalone restroom kiosk, as a potential solution.
Rogers added that the ADA was partnering with the city of Asheville, Asheville GreenWorks and BeLoved Asheville to bring back its Downtown Cleanup Day. This year’s event will be held Tuesday, April 19, with more details to come.
The year ahead
Rogers announced that the ADA plans to strengthen its advocacy efforts for its members and the downtown community but shared few specifics of what those plans would look like. Finally, she added that the association will resume hosting many of its popular events this year, including Downtown After 5.
“We are excited to bring back that slate of events here in 2022. They’re not just fun — they’re actually an economic driver for our businesses, and particularly those who were impacted by event cancellations over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rogers explained. “I believe that these events can be a part of our economic recovery, but also our emotional recovery, as we’re able to gather together with our neighbors and friends.”