Year in Review: Residents and local leaders reflect on Asheville’s growth and tourism

GROWTH MINDSET: The Interstate-26 expansion was one of several new construction projects that community members mentioned as Asheville continues to grow in population. Photo by Max Hunt

As the 2020 census proved, Asheville is indeed growing. The city grew 13.4% between 2010 and 2020, from 83,393 to 94,589 residents. Buncombe County saw a similar increase of 13.1%, from 238,318 residents in 2010 to 269,452 tallied last year — the largest gain of any county in Western North Carolina.

With growth comes worsening traffic, rising housing costs and long lines of tourists waiting at locally beloved bars and restaurants. (Here’s looking at you, New York Times Restaurant List honoree Chai Pani).

But it’s not all bad, as 2021’s Year In Review participants note in their reflections on Asheville’s development and tourism sector. These residents and local leaders shared their growth gripes and hopes as they look forward to the coming year. 

What specific solution do you have for an issue created by the tourism industry?

“We need to stop thinking of tourism as something that happens to us. Tourism can be an opportunity to model diversity, equity, inclusion and sustainability to our visitors through our festivals, museums, stores, hotels and restaurants. It doesn’t require a government program. We simply need our various identity communities and business and community leaders to change who they lunch with; change who they call to pursue an opportunity or to solve a problem. Our informal networks shape our thinking and action far more than do programs and policies.” — Tina Madison White, executive director, Blue Ridge Pride Center

“The best solution for the variety of negative issues created by the tourism industry is changing the authorizing legislation to enable much more of the occupancy tax revenue to go toward solving these issues – housing, infrastructure, transportation, etc.  Tourism and the occupancy tax have benefited Asheville tremendously, with over 25,000 jobs and $44 million invested in capital projects, but tourism’s negative impacts are real, and that industry has to help solve them.  That legislation was not able to move forward this year, but I remain hopeful that the aligned stakeholders in Asheville can make it happen next year.” — Sen. Julie Mayfield, N.C. Senate District 49

“In light of the high visitation that we are seeing across parks and other public lands, a simple solution that everyone can employ is remembering to recreate responsibly. What this means is to plan ahead, share your plans with family and friends, know your limitations, use “Leave no Trace” principles and in general protect the experience for yourself — and everyone who comes after you! Recreating responsibly includes not only when, where and how you recreate, but also where you park and what you leave behind. Each of us plays an important role in being a good steward of the places that we care about.” — Tracy Swartout, superintendent, Blue Ridge Parkway

“My best solution would be to have circulator buses and remote parking lots for both locals and tourists. Locals who complain about the difficulty of parking downtown, employees who are burdened by the cost of parking and visitors who want to explore without trying to find parking would all benefit.  This could also expand the footprint of the downtown to West Asheville, the River Arts District and Biltmore Village. It’s a win for employees who wouldn’t have to pay for parking, locals who could visit downtown more often and visitors who would get to see more of the city.” — Andrew Celwyn, owner, Herbiary; member, Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority

How has your relationship with downtown changed over 2021? 

“My relationship with downtown Asheville in 2021 has been divided. Asheville is in high demand with its uniqueness. This city has the experience of traveling the world in one location. I love living here and have the feeling of being in a beautiful place that is sought out by so many. On the other hand, my feelings are that with growth comes change. Not everyone is accepting of that. I miss seeing the old neighborhoods I grew up in, the older buildings that held a lot of Black businesses known as The Block. The Black community had and still has a lot to do with the growth of Asheville. I just don’t want to see that part of history lost and forgotten.” — Jenny Pickens, artist/educator

“One of my favorite things to do downtown is go out to eat. This hardly happened at all in 2020. I’ve been excited to get back out there in 2021, as restaurants are rebounding, and vaccines are more prevalent. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, we’ve lost some businesses for good, and others are making compromises to keep things going. This experience has led me to be a more loyal patron of local businesses and a more generous tipper, too.” — Rachael Nygaard, strategic partnerships director, Buncombe County

“It’s complicated! My affection for our sweet downtown hasn’t changed, yet downtown does feel less like home. It’s a bit like when a close friend becomes famous. The bond continues, but the person changes, and a whole new set of admirers who do not share history and experience are on the scene. I miss familiar faces when I eat or shop. However, after months of businesses being closed, I was absolutely giddy when my husband and I walked downtown to eat at our favorite restaurant. I also remain proud to show friends and family around my little city when visiting.” — Holly Jones, WNC Community Outreach Coordinator, N.C. Department of Justice

What’s something new that you’ve seen built close to where you live or work, and how has it impacted your daily life?

“The Wilma Dykeman Greenway is a really great addition as a community asset and an economic development driver. As a road biker living on the east side, it really opens up the possibilities for my routes. This is a really exciting community amenity and further activates the RAD from a development perspective. Kudos to the community and city for advocating, leading and executing on this vision.” — Tim Love, director of economic development and governmental relations, Buncombe County

“The parts of [Interstate] 26 in the Arden area have been very beneficial due to the lower traffic as they has been enlarged.  We frequently travel that corridor in our work at BeLoved Asheville in our box truck, named Esperanza, to take food and diapers to communities in need.” — Ponkho Bermejo, co-director, BeLoved Asheville

“I have seen several new apartments and hotels built in the area of downtown where I work. I have been impacted by the lack of parking during events. It can get a little expensive at times. It would be great to have a less expensive way to park for employees downtown. I would also like to see more foot traffic and possible signage directed to the Eagle and S.Market St. businesses.” — Jenny Pickens

“Surveyors, tree mechanics, bulldozers and contractors. New homes, new neighbors, detours and more hand waves. Wondering what will be the future of this community with all the momentum of I-26 highway expansion coming to the Burton Street neighborhood soon.” — DeWayne Barton, owner, Hood Huggers International

“The completion of the new Element Hotel as you come out of the Beaucatcher tunnel, which I pass every day on my way to work.  I miss the view of the mountains and downtown and wish that it had been replaced with something more interesting. I don’t mind new development, but as the executive director of the Preservation Society I wish we were seeing more new construction that we would want to defend in 50 years.  I’m also struck by how many buildings we have in this city with empty space, and yet we continue to build new.”  — Jessie Landl, executive director, Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County 

Has Asheville’s development over the last year helped or hurt you, and how so?

“Asheville’s continued development has certainly helped my small business keep afloat during challenging times.  It has also made it more challenging for keeping wages up for my employees who rent and are more subject to market prices that keep increasing.  If our community doesn’t invest in more affordable housing, it won’t even be able to retain some of the better-paying jobs in the hospitality industry.” — Andrew Celwyn

“Asheville’s development over the last year has hurt me. Real estate prices are exceedingly high compared to the surrounding areas. Restaurants are overcrowded and overpriced. And the city is trying to accommodate an increasing population within a limited geographical space, making competition for resources very intense.” — JP Chalarca, founder, WECAN Man

“As an individual and professional, I think it is fair to say that development is bittersweet. There is no doubt that increased development can generate additional traffic and strains on infrastructure if proper mitigation efforts aren’t implemented. However, development can also generate needed housing units and jobs in our community. Ultimately, there is a balance that we should strive to achieve so that we preserve what makes our community great but maintain openness to beneficial changes as well.” — Tim Love


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2 thoughts on “Year in Review: Residents and local leaders reflect on Asheville’s growth and tourism

  1. Al Schlimm

    I love Mr. Celwyn’s circulator bus idea. It’s an idea that has been used successfully in other cities. There are several challenges: 1st, capital. You will need buses, parking lots, waiting facilities, and perhaps bus storage facilities. 2nd, operations: You will need drivers, supervisors, maintenance personnel, and support staff. And, lastly, if you build it, will they use it? These are surmountable challenges, but it takes a community that wants it and is willing to fund it. Austin is a good example of how to get this done. They passed a bill establishing a 1-cent sales tax dedicated to transit. (They also have separately passed a major bond issue to build an extensive light rail system. But, there, you’re talking millions of dollars per mile.) I wish Mr. Celwyn good luck in bringing life to his idea. Tony Kouneski (retired public transit industry CEO) with Al Schlimm

  2. rwd

    Well…a short solution to the percentage of money from the hotel occupancy tax revenue going to the state capital…STOP GRANTING / BUILDING HOTELS ! ! ! The formulary for this will not get changed until the make-up of our state legislative groups change. It is great LIP-SERVICE to suggest otherwise…but that is all it is, a nice phrase to get votes !

    Affordable housing is a JOKE phrase that gets thrown around at every opportunity. There are not many home builders who are going to build and then lease and/or rent for a couple hundred dollars over what they owe for the month…much less…charge less than what they owe…merely to be able to say I can accept someone making $15/hr into a new and comfortable housing arrangement !! If there are any out there…COME OUT OF THE DARK AND LET IT BE KNOWN ! ! The universe will reward you for your kindness !!

    Regarding the developers with their vertical structured answers…there will be a percentage of “Affordable Housing Units” within the structure/s…the city approves excessive enticement’s to build…this reduction in the revenue stream will need to be restored somehow…usually in the form of a property tax increase !!! So the enticement/s of being able to say there is “Affordable Housing” within a development is great for some, however the existing homeowners are saddled with the load of restoring the revenue our City Administrators are allowing ! ! !

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