At the annual State of the City luncheon, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer referenced the voices of Asheville citizens “from all walks of life” as frequently as she cited experts and economic studies.
Manheimer said, “The job of your City Council is to hear the voice of the people — their words, their views, their vision —and use those to create a plan that reflects the values of our community.”
The slideshow accompanying the mayor’s remarks on Thursday, Oct. 1 included images of Asheville residents holding whiteboards with their answers to questions like “What about Asheville makes you happy?” and “What does Asheville need?”
Based on residents’ input, City Council has created a strategic plan for the upcoming year that focuses on three main goals, said Manheimer:
- Economic growth and sustainability
- Affordability and economic mobility
- High quality of life
Economic growth and sustainability
The city’s efforts to promote economic growth and sustainability center around jobs, infrastructure, partnerships with other governmental entities and community organizations and efficient management of the city’s resources.
Manheimer said Buncombe County has the lowest unemployment rate in the state. She cited the first Asheville 5×5 plan, which began in 2010 and ended in 2015. The plan’s ambitious goals were to create 5,000 new jobs and $500 million in capital investment. At the end of the plan period, those goals had been met and exceeded, with 6,385 jobs created and over $1 billion in capital investment.
To strengthen the community’s infrastructure, Manheimer noted, the city must work in partnership with the county and state. She noted the Lake Craig/Azalea Road improvement project as an example of successful collaborative infrastructure development between the city and various state government agencies.
The city’s recent AAA rating from Standard & Poor’s will allow Asheville to borrow money at the lowest interest rates available in the market. The rating also validates the efficient financial management practices of the city’s finance department and leadership, Manheimer said. She pointed out that Asheville was recently the first municipality in the state to issue a “green bond” to finance infrastructure improvements to protect the city’s water resources.
Affordability and economic mobility
Manheimer referenced a study commissioned by the city in 2014 to assess affordable housing needs in the community. That study showed significant shortages in housing across all price levels, but especially in the affordable category. The city has increased its investment in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, partnered with Mountain Housing Opportunities, held a Housing Fair to help citizens access information about housing, looked closely at revising regulations controlling short-term rental units and expanded opportunities to develop accessory dwelling units. All of these city initiatives share the goal of reducing pressure on Asheville’s limited supply of housing and increasing the availability of affordable housing.
Manheimer celebrated the city’s action in extending a living wage to all city employees, whether full-time, part-time, seasonal or temporary. She said state law prevents the city from requiring its contractors to pay a living wage to their employees.
The city is also launching a new program to support small and minority- and women-owned businesses. Manheimer said small businesses are the engines fueling the region’s business landscape.
The mayor remains committed to the Mayors’ Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. This goal will be met, said Manheimer, when “no veterans are sleeping on our city’s streets,” and when veterans have access to permanent housing.
High quality of life
To promote a continued high quality of life in Asheville, Manheimer said the city is implementing the Watch For Me program aimed at enhancing pedestrian and bicyclist safety. Manheimer also pointed to the efforts of new Asheville Police Department Chief Tammy Hooper to bring a new focus to community policing. Like other communities across the U.S., Asheville is working to implement police body cameras, according to Manheimer.
The city has enhanced its communications efforts with an expanded city blog, the online tool SimpliCity and the continued use of the Asheville App. The city also continues to be home to great cultural events like Downtown After Five, the Goombay Festival and Shindig on the Green, said Manheimer.
While Asheville has a lot to celebrate, it faces challenges “like any other community,” she continued.
The mayor reported that revenue challenges faced by the city include the loss of the privilege license tax (as a result of actions by the state legislature) and increases in the cost of providing services. In the current year’s budget, the city increased fees for some city services and increased the property tax rate by 1.5 cents.
Looking to the future
As part of the Capital Improvement Plan 2015 to 2020, the city will add three miles of new sidewalks and resurface four-and-a-half miles of city streets in the upcoming year. The city also will add over five miles of greenways while continuing work on the River Arts District Traffic Improvement Plan, which will eventually realign Riverside Drive and create the French Broad Greenway.
The Livingston Street Complete Streets project will make the corridor safer and more comfortable for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users.
The 5×5 Vision 2020 plan has just been unveiled, and it aims to attract over $10 million in equity investment and add 3,000 direct jobs with an average annual wage of $50,000. This “may seem like a lofty goal,” said Manheimer, but she pointed out that the previous plan had exceeded goals that had originally seemed very ambitious.
Continued efforts to promote sustainability will include waste reduction plans, the food policy, the clean energy policy and city funding for affordable housing development.
A new fire station in the Five Points neighborhood will improve the department’s response time and enhance residents’ safety, Manheimer reported.
“Asheville strives to be inclusive and to bring all voices to the table,” Manheimer said and asked, “Who has the power to make Asheville better?” The citizens portrayed in her slideshow, and the attendees at the luncheon, responded, “We do.”
Lexington Avenue named one of 15 “Great Places”
Manheimer concluded her remarks with an announcement of Lexington Avenue’s selection as one of America’s Great Places by the American Planning Association, one of only five streets chosen for the honor in 2015.
In a press release, the city provided more information about the award:
As part of National Community Planning Month, APA’s Great Places in America program recognizes streets, neighborhoods, and public spaces in the United States demonstrating exceptional character, quality, and planning—attributes that enrich communities, facilitate economic growth, and inspire others around the country.
Lexington Avenue, the creative epicenter of Asheville, North Carolina, features a diverse mix of more than 200 small shops and businesses—including two modern-day speakeasies and a variety of independent stores and restaurants—and a pedestrian-centered atmosphere with brick sidewalks and a heavy tree canopy. Once a neglected stretch of buildings proposed for redevelopment into a mall, Lexington Avenue instead became an economically thriving thoroughfare as a lively music and arts scene emerged, drawing visitors and tourism profits to the area and giving the street an eclectic, unique character. Recent city planning has emphasized and incentivized adaptive reuse and infill development, further increasing density and activity on Lexington Avenue. The annual Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival and the Downtown After 5 Summer Music Series, along with the abundance of cultural and commercial destinations filling the street, play a crucial role in energizing and maintaining Asheville’s economy.