A Curaté employee described being shot in the forehead with frozen water beads from an airsoft gun. A hotel employee recounted dealing with an individual wielding a hatchet. A brewery manager brought up being called racial profanities.
These were some of the stories told during a March 1 listening session organized by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce; the public gathering was hosted by the restaurant Rhubarb.
Throughout the event, individuals from seven businesses in downtown Asheville and Biltmore Village described verbal and physical assaults and cleaning up drug paraphernalia and vandalism. They also voiced their concern that city leaders were not addressing these issues.
Asheville Police Chief David Zack, Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO Vic Isley, Mayor Esther Manheimer, City Manager Debra Campbell, City Council members Sandra Kilgore, Kim Roney and Maggie Ullman and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman were among the roughly 50 community members in attendance.
Before the session ended, one business owner asked the assembled crowd, “How many people have to get assaulted?”
Growing unease among workers
Karis Roberts, a bartender at Wedge Brewery, described how downtown employees feel they’re on the front lines in addressing drug overdoses that occur inside their establishments. “We shouldn’t have to be that resource,” she says.
Amanda Ball, a manager at the Highland Brewing Co. location in the S&W Market, shared a yearlong chronology of crime, as well as violent or chaotic incidents employees have experienced. Ball said she’s had to ask people to leave for using drugs and having sex inside the food hall’s bathroom. Often, she reported, these exchanges resulted in confrontations.
She went on to describe an incident from Sept. 12 when a woman entered the brewery and stole food from a catered event. When Ball asked the woman to leave, she said the woman hit her and then began to undress. A janitor and another manager who helped Ball remove the woman were both physically assaulted.
Ball told the assembled crowd that she has purchased a knife, pepper spray and a small Taser in an attempt to feel safer.
Another merchant felt the same as Ball. “I feel scared to be in my own business,” Dema Badr, owner of Scout Boutique in Biltmore Village, told the audience. She focused her comments on the frustration she has had in trying to get city and county officials to deal with crime and violent or chaotic incidents. She gets the impression they think she’s overreacting. “I’m gaslit into thinking I’m a rich, out-of-touch conservative.” (Badr is a longtime Asheville resident; her parents own Asheville Discount Pharmacy on Patton Avenue.)
Badr addressed several elected officials directly. She told Newman that he needed to acknowledge the impact that “vagrants and criminals” have on public safety, called out Roney for her criticism of the Asheville Police Department and questioned the prosecutorial decisions of Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams. (Williams was not present.)
Chef and restaurant group CEO Katie Button told the audience she employs 160 downtown workers who feel “unsafe and scared — they are all feeling it.” Curaté server Christina Howington-Gurjian described being assaulted with frozen water beads in an Airsoft gun, which caused her to have a panic attack and then a headache for two days.
Howington-Gurjian also described an incident outside the restaurant where two men fought and at least one was injured with a machete. “Blood had to be washed off the street, off the windows [of Curaté], by the Fire Department” while diners were inside, she recalled.
Distinguishing between homeless and vagrants
Lucious Wilson, general manager at Wedge Brewery, implored those assembled to differentiate between those who are homeless and the ones who are committing crimes. He says he doesn’t have a problem with homeless individuals and, in fact, knows several of them who stay near Wedge Brewery personally and often has cordial relationships with them.
“What I have a problem with is when my bartender is walking to her car across the bridge and someone jumps out of her car and accosts her physically,” Wilson said. “I don’t equate that, personally, with homelessness. I equate that with vagrancy. My ask is, ‘Can you do something to solve the vagrancy?’
“My guess is that the vast majority of homeless people are good people who just need a break,” Wilson said. “But this is not what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with vagrants.”
The event concluded with several recommendations from the chamber. Zach Wallace, chamber vice president of public policy, asked city leaders to prioritize public safety and “increase resources downtown.” He also said the chamber is working on a feasibility study of establishing a Business Improvement District, which adds a property tax to pay for additional services in the district.
Do you have more to add to this story? Contact the author at jwakeman [at] mountainx.com.