Michel Martin of National Public Radio and local public radio station WCQS hosted a panel discussion, “When Your Hometown Gets Hot,” on Feb. 7 at the Diana Wortham Theater in downtown Asheville. During the nearly two-hour program, Martin and the panel participants spoke and took questions from the sold-out audience on the topic of Asheville’s rapid development. Those discussions were interspersed with entertainment from local author Ron Rash and the local band River Whyless.
Martin kicked off the evening with statistics that demonstrate the growth of Asheville. With 9 million visitors to the area in 2014, Lonely Planet’s designation of Asheville as the number one place to visit in the United States in 2017 and the 44 percent jump in downtown real estate values in the past year, Martin justified the premise of the event: Asheville is hot. She then asked panel members to share their Asheville history and how it has shaped their individual understanding of the place.
Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians said she has a unique perspective on the area’s evolution: “We were the very first to be hot,” she said, to knowing laughs from the audience. “We’ve had a little longer to work through the changes.”
Asheville’s growth has also boosted the tourism industry in the Qualla, Clapsaddle said. The city’s popularity has increased visitation to Cherokee, which has allowed artists to represent tribal history and culture in more authentic ways that are specific to this region. The amount of taxable land in Qualla is relatively small as well, so the community benefits from the growth of taxable revenue generated by Harrah’s Casino.
Scott Dedman of Mountain Housing Opportunities, a nonprofit that creates affordable housing, shared a quote bemoaning growth in Asheville. Before he revealed the source of the quote, one imagined it could have been overheard at Haywood Avenue’s BattleCat Coffee Bar by a particularly articulate (and surly) patron. The passage, which was actually drawn from a letter written by author Thomas Wolfe in 1929, illustrated the spirit of reactionary cantankerousness that growth has always inspired in Asheville.
Dedman also recounted the experience of young African-American professionals in Asheville who travel to Charlotte or Atlanta for social life on the weekends.
City Council member and MountainTrue co-director Julie Mayfield enumerated the environmental treasures of Asheville which she said draw people to the area. She cited Western North Carolina’s rich biodiversity, as well as attractions such as the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Great Smoky Mountains and Pisgah National Forest.
Oscar Wong and Leah Wong Ashburn of Highland Brewing Company agreed that the area’s natural beauty, particularly the good water, anchor their business in this area. Those natural resources provide the foundation for their brewing business, and others like it, which add character to the region.
Christopher Cooper, professor at Western Carolina University, added historical context to the discussion, as well as comic relief in his easy banter with Martin.
A number of questions from the live audience (which was predominantly older and white) asked about the limited representation of the participants on the panel. Some wondered why there were no African-American Asheville residents on the panel. Others asked why there were no professional artists, either.
Given the relatively short amount of time, the panel understandably had its limits in terms of participants and subjects covered. The fact that so much was covered stands as a testament to the curatorial skill of WCQS and Martin’s moderating prowess.
While the discussion gradually coalesced to paint an understanding of the current growth and the accompanying challenges, little time was spent on the future. There also were no major revelations from the event. Rather, panel participants discussed in detail issues familiar to many Asheville residents.
The biggest bombshell of the night, for example, came at the beginning of the program when WCQS station manager David Feingold announced a new structure for WCQS. Blue Ridge Public Radio is the newly named parent entity of WCQS and WCQS’ new, all-news sister station, which will be called BPR News. BPR News will go live on March 6 and streams for both will be accessible via bpr.org.
In between moments of discussion, writer Ron Rash read from his works and local band River Whyless performed. In an evening filled with shocking statistics and meaningful anecdotes, Rash’s writing spoke to one element of the rich culture and gravitas of the area. His Southern pacing and cadence loped with peaceful resignation, while his words and stories traded richly on the nostalgia of a former time.