For many people, springtime inspires a deep yearning to refresh and renew: an urge to throw open the windows, deep-clean all the nooks and crannies and let go of belongings that don’t spark joy.
And after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asheville itself was due for a spring cleaning as well. That’s why city government, along with the nonprofits Asheville GreenWorks and BeLoved Asheville, kicked off the first of four community cleanup efforts downtown April 18.
“Downtown definitely needs a little bit of a refresher,” said Liese Freund, who attended Tuesday’s cleanup with around 10 coworkers from Katie Button Restaurants.
Roughly 200 volunteers met at Rabbit Rabbit on a cold but sunny Tuesday morning to help pick up trash. In three hours, participants collected 60 bags containing approximately 700 total pounds of refuse, mostly consisting of food and drink packaging, plastic bottles and cigarette butts — as well as one shopping cart.
“I enjoy seeing a street or alley that looks better after you go through and clean everything up,” said volunteer Jonathan Lohr, a nursing student at Western Carolina University. “It’s a good feeling.”
Outside of organized events, assuring Asheville’s cleanliness is a task that many people might not notice — that is, until it’s not getting done. Xpress wanted to learn what it takes to keep downtown clean and what the future may hold for funding the city’s maintenance.
Maintaining downtown is a multifaceted, multiorganizational feat, explained Assistant City Manager Rachel Wood during a March 22 meeting of Asheville City Council.
“There’s not just one culprit that’s contributing to the cleanliness issue across the community,” Wood said. “And in order to solve cleanliness, it’s really going to take a community-wide, holistic approach.”
The city’s current cleaning and maintenance efforts, Wood explained, include contracting with outside vendors for downtown litter collection, weed control, waste receptacle cleaning and sidewalk pressure washing five days a week.
Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department also provides 150 hours of service in downtown parks per week and contributes to litter cleanup, waste collection and pressure washing twice per month at Pritchard Park. Asheville’s Sanitation Department maintains and empties 125 downtown trash receptacles seven days per week and provides street sweeping services.
Wood emphasized that the city has many partnerships to round out the work. Buncombe County helps maintain sharps containers within the city limits, and the N.C. Department of Transportation responds to maintenance needs on its right-of-ways and other properties.
Local organizations, such as Asheville GreenWorks, BeLoved, the Asheville Downtown Association, United Way, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and Explore Asheville, as well as neighborhood associations, businesses and concerned citizens, also play a crucial role in cleanup efforts and reporting litter in and around the city, Wood said.
The perfect storm
While those combined efforts had generally been working to keep downtown tidy, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many of the city’s partnerships and volunteers, upended homelessness resources and reduced crucial staffing on the city’s sanitation and maintenance workforce. Respondents to this year’s Asheville Downtown Association survey recently scored downtown a 2.2 out of 5 on cleanliness.
Dawn Chávez, executive director at Asheville GreenWorks, says her organization normally harnesses over 2,200 volunteers for more than 100 different cleanup projects each year, the majority of which take place in Asheville city limits. Those efforts were hobbled when efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 reduced participation.
Over each of the past two years, Chávez says, GreenWorks has averaged about 800 volunteers.
“One of the things we learned about cleanliness is how dependent we were on volunteer organizations to help keep our city clean,” adds Mayor Esther Manheimer. “And of course, when all of those organizations shuttered during COVID, I think we saw the results.”
As shelters that normally house Asheville’s homeless population closed or reduced capacity due to pandemic concerns, residents were pushed onto the streets of downtown with few options for disposing of waste, says the Rev. Amy Cantrell, co-director at BeLoved.
“There are a lot of people downtown, that’s the easiest way to put it,” Cantrell says. “Most of us have our city sanitation that comes every week to our homes and recycling every other week. And that’s just not a luxury that people on the streets have.”
And Jes Foster, Asheville’s solid waste manager, adds that like many businesses across the city and country, her department has seen reductions in its workforce.
“It has been difficult to keep a full staff. And that’s extremely challenging in sanitation because we have a job that we have to do every day. And we have to get it done that day. We can’t just push it off to the next week,” Foster explains.
“We’re talking about a supercomplicated piece of equipment,” adds Asheville Public Works Director Greg Shuler, referencing the city’s trash pickup trucks. “You’re driving on the wrong side. The trucks are about $350,000 each. So we want to make sure that we have the right people driving.”
He says there are roughly 20 full-time positions open across the public works department, many many of which are very specialized.
“The skill sets that our employees have are in unbelievably high demand right now. And it shows we need to be competitive to get the best and to keep them. The work that we do is really some of the most important core services that the city provides,” he maintains.
Getting back on track
Cleanup efforts like those that happened last week offer temporary solutions. But elected leaders, city staff and organization heads say longer-term strategies are needed to keep Asheville clean.
Cantrell says for its part, BeLoved plans to continue organizing downtown cleanup events roughly once a month. So far, the nonprofit has coordinated five such cleanups, in which homeless residents often participate. She hopes those efforts will help combat negative stereotypes about people without homes.
“BeLoved has been really focused on being a part of the solution. And so one of those things is caring for what we call the common spaces, that all of us are a part of, that make this beautiful place where we live,” she says. “I love the fact that people that you might not expect, people who are unhoused, our friends on the streets, have been really leading the charge within the city.”
Chávez says while GreenWorks plans to continue its own cleanup and education efforts, those may not be enough. She would like to see more enforcement of litter and illegal dumping laws from local law enforcement agencies.
“We do a lot of education. And we can see that it definitely helps, especially getting kids to talk to their parents,” she says. “But people who are throwing out huge bags of trash are not our target audience. They’re not going to be the ones coming to a workshop to learn how to recycle. So there has to be a multipronged approach, and the other part of it is enforcement.”
Asheville Police Department spokesman Bill Davis says that his department does take littering and illegal dumping seriously, adding that APD has issued 75 charges for litter over the last five years.
“Enforcement of all existing laws is a priority for APD and any law enforcement agency, whether it’s litter or larceny, illegal dumping or illegal drugs,” Davis tells Xpress. “While APD is often reactive to many crimes in our patrol and investigative actions, we also encourage proactive measures and often rely on the public to be our partners in crime by giving us tips about littering.”
Meanwhile, Schuler says that Asheville would benefit from having a solid waste master plan, which would help coordinate fee structures, ordinances and operations, as well as provide long-range planning for waste and recycling over a 10-20 year span.
“We would need to have the support through our budget process. And I think this will be our third year asking for this,” says Schuler. He notes that Asheville City Council named core services as one of its priorities during this year’s retreat.
“We know resources are strained but we really feel like this is one of our top priorities for public works,” Shuler says. (City spokesperson Kim Miller declined to provide a cost estimate for a solid waste master plan, saying that “we’re still reviewing numbers on all budgetary concerns.”)
Mayor Manheimer says she hopes that new legislation regarding Buncombe County’s occupancy tax may offer a way for the city to fund ongoing maintenance and cleanup. Currently, Buncombe’s occupancy tax revenue, which is expected to exceed $40 million this fiscal year, must be spent on tourism marketing and tourism-related capital projects. The mayor and other local leaders are pushing for changes at the upcoming short session of the N.C. General Assembly, which starts in May, that would both shift more funds away from marketing and expand their allowable uses to include maintenance.
“Downtown is heavily impacted by the tourism industry, both in a positive way for the economy and in a negative way, in terms of just keeping up with infrastructure and cleanliness,” Manheimer says. “And we’re hopeful that the pending legislation will allow more flexibility so we have better resources available that are paid for by tourists to help with things like cleanliness.”