As part of its summer Buzz Breakfast series, Leadership Asheville (a program of UNC Asheville) hosted “How will Asheville grow thoughtfully?” on July 26 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The event explored the public sector’s role in shaping and encouraging the city’s growth.
Panelists included Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides, Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority Executive Director Stephanie Pace Brown and UNC Asheville professor Darin Waters. Each demonstrated their passion for the topic, struggling to keep their remarks brief.
“My concern about the growth of Asheville — and why I want to continue to be a part of the leadership and thinking about the growth of Asheville — is we have the challenge of balancing the preservation of what makes Asheville special while strategically planning the growth of our area so that we can maintain a level of affordability for people who live here, and we can continue to strive for greater equity for all people that live here,” said Manheimer.
With the rapid growth of tourism in the city, said Waters, he’s “looking for ways for marginalized communities to participate in that economy.” As a historian who studies how African-Americans have shaped and been shaped by Western North Carolina, he said, he believes ensuring opportunity for all members of the community is vital.
Whitesides noted that economic initiatives must support community unity. “We want to make sure we have businesses that mesh with us and improve the quality of life here,” he said.
When moderator Bill Sederburg asked the panelists what surprises them most about Asheville, he received varied responses.
“In working to solve the problem of affordable housing, what really surprised me was to see 18 percent of the people who live in Buncombe County live in manufactured housing,” replied Whitesides. “We’ve got to really look at that segment of our population because a lot of these [homes] are substandard.”
In 1983, said Brown, “Visitor spending in Buncombe County was less than $200 million, and today it is $2 billion a year. And that’s direct spending: money in the cash registers of local businesses in Buncombe County.”
According to Brown, many local residents don’t realize that 25 percent of hotel occupancy tax revenues are used to help develop community amenities that also attract visitors.
The mayor said she’s continually surprised that other North Carolina cities like Greenville and Concord have similar populations to Asheville’s, but seem rather “sleepy” compared to a “typical day in Asheville.” The city’s popularity with both tourists and businesses means the city must remain alert and plan strategically in order to accommodate those who want to spend time here, she said.
To unify the community in the face of growth, Whitesides said, “We’ve got to do it the old-fashioned way: relationships.”
“One of the challenges we’re having with the political environment in North Carolina is that Asheville has been seemingly at odds with the state,” added the mayor. “So one of my core beliefs is that we should always talk to everyone, even if we have very different views, very different political positions.”
Panelists were asked to reflect on Buncombe County’s vision for economic development.
Diversity and variety are crucial, said Whitesides.
“If we’re going to be successful, with affordable housing, with education and all, it’s key that we start targeting the right businesses to come here,” he said. Attracting employers who pay a living wage should be the focus of economic development efforts, Whitesides continued. “So we are looking at it, and we are attacking. We are changing the whole way we look at economic development, because we haven’t looked at it in over 10 years in Buncombe County.”
The next Buzz Breakfast event will be held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 1 Resort Drive, on Wednesday, Aug. 23. That event will consider the private sector response to Asheville’s growth with panelists Elizabeth Button, John McKibbon, Jay Richardson and Steve Woody. Tickets can be purchased here or at 828-255-7100.