At the Oct. 6 Council of Independent Business Owners meeting, Mayor Esther Manheimer presented updates on a number of issues, including the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, homelessness initiatives and the proposed vision for Pack Square Plaza. Despite the wide range of topics, CIBO members appeared most interested in discussing public safety.
Manheimer said that City Council’s primary focus over the past three years has been restoring core services and the sense of stability that was lost during the pandemic.
“COVID was the most disruptive thing that cities in America have ever experienced. It had a devastating effect on cities, and to right that shift has really been a tremendous struggle,” Manheimer said. “The main issue that Council has been discussing is the restoration of services and making sure that safety, cleanliness and other basic services are being provided to the city.”
Manheimer highlighted the construction of a new public safety station on Broadway, set to include a fire station, a police substation, the relocated Emergency Operations Center and a small community conference room. Additionally, she noted, the City of Asheville is collaborating with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office to implement a real-time criminal intelligence camera system across the city.
Despite these initiatives, several members of CIBO suggested that not enough was being done to address rising crime and safety concerns, particularly in the downtown area. Members also called for higher wages for officers.
Manheimer acknowledged that APD salaries are not competitive compared with the rest of the state. But in her earlier presentation to the group, the mayor noted officers did receive a 6% pay rate increase as part of the 2022-23 budget. Additional raises, Manheimer said in response to the group’s feedback, would put a strain on the city’s current budget.
“I agree, we do need to do more,” Manheimer said. “Per my last conversation with Chief David Zack, we are currently looking at increasing the pay for lateral hires. However, it is a challenging issue, and we already had to bend the fund balance to make the budget work this year. That’s not a great situation.”
Manheimer also provided an update on the Interstate 26 Connector project, as well as the bike lanes on College Street and Patton Avenue. Manheimer noted these two projects provide a unique opportunity to create a new gateway into downtown that is both “pedestrian friendly and climate conscious.” However, several members of CIBO stated that the projects should be put on the back burner until safety issues downtown are addressed.
Manheimer responded, noting her belief that the project would indirectly help public safety, as it would further activate the downtown area.
“Bike lanes and a robust downtown are not independent from public safety,” Manheimer said. “If you activate your city, if you get people out of their cars, walking around and hanging out, you create a safer environment. More eyes on the street is a more safe city.”
The Asheville City Council approved the project at its Oct. 10 meeting in a 4-3 vote, with Council members Antanette Mosley, Sheneika Smith and Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore opposed.
In other news
In addition to Manheimer’s State of the City report, CIBO members also heard an update from Tristan Winkler, director of the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization. The federally mandated organization was created in 1962 in response to the region’s growth. The MPO currently serves over 414,000 people across 21 municipalities, including the City of Asheville as well as Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties.
During his presentation, Winkler noted a significant decrease in traffic delays throughout the region compared with previous years. He contributed this to a surge in telecommuting throughout the region, as well as an overall shift away from traveling during rush hours.
Additionally, Winkler noted that the MPO is assessing what transportation projects are needed in the future, based on trends and public input.
“Several capacity projects are being considered along I-26, as well as several safety projects along our five-lane roads such as Hendersonville Road and Tunnel Road,” Winkler said. “We are also looking into the possibility of developing a passenger rail throughout the region.”
Winkler noted that the MPO is seeking public comment on the proposed projects. Residents can share their opinion at avl.mx/d2q. Additionally, the organization plans to host community input sessions over the coming months.