When I was someone else’s employee, co-workers and I would often hold gleefully scathing discussions over cigarettes in the alley behind the business where we worked. We mostly focused on what stupid decisions the boss was making and how clear it was that we would make much better ones while being a lot more generous and less frantic concerning money.
Ah, how wistfully I look back upon the blissful ignorance of the “W-2 mentality.” What lovely innocence and righteous indignation I enjoyed, unsuspecting that they would soon be cruelly shattered by the realities of owning my own businesses.
In much the same fashion, I voluntarily and unwittingly stormed into the public-service arena, certain that I could find quick, effective solutions where others seemed to flounder. What do all those silly public officials do all day, anyway?
These days, though, I love to gaze ruefully at Downtown Commission Chair Pat Whalen while reminding him how he ruined me by inviting me to sit down at a Downtown Social Issues Task Force meeting, which I’d only crashed in order to put in my 2 cents’ worth about graffiti. Little did I know it would turn into 18 months of work on the issue.
Six years later, I’ve served on several such committees, including most recently the steering and advisory committees for Asheville’s Downtown Master Plan. I’m also a member of the Downtown Commission, which asked the city to fund the process of developing the plan. In the course of this experience, my bedfellows have grown strange indeed.
But what I really want to say here is that if a dyed-in-the-wool, fringe-dwelling, ex-punk, ex-hippie, ex-goth, pseudo-intellectual tattoo artist like me can manage to digest and accept the recommendations in the Downtown Master Plan, you can too. This process has been an exercise in eye-opening, understanding and perspective. It’s meant listening to the needs and opinions of people I thought I agreed with but in fact didn’t totally, and to those of folks I couldn’t possibly have agreed with yet actually did. They (you) were all there, putting in more than 4,000 hours of input, time and care.
For me, the high point of the whole experience came midprocess when, in mediation, we hashed out some key issues over which there was serious disagreement. Again and again, I’ve seen the city go out of its way to make sure a situation was handled with integrity, and this was no exception. I sat in intimate, guided discussions with people who, in my extremely liberal upbringing, had been equated with the evil Empire from Star Wars, yet we were able to find some common ground.
True, we disagreed on many points, and I still wish the consultants’ recommendations called for taxing developers more to force them to support arts and culture and other community benefits. But I’m pleased that the proposed requirements for new construction will help preserve important aspects of the quality of life we now enjoy down here on the ground. In addition, the proposed development process would be efficient, clear and would involve the public earlier on. I believe these changes will benefit both the development community and the community at large.
What’s more, the consultants managed to renew my faith in the whole concept of consulting (not an easy thing to do). With each new wiggle of community sentiment and each emerging issue, they patiently revised their work, well past the limits of my own patience. And while various extreme points of view are perhaps less in evidence than their proponents might wish, there is much in the plan that we can work with and much that we can do. All in all, the proposed master plan is a useful tool that can address the fears and concerns of many lovers of Asheville while making the most of what development can offer (and that’s a phrase I never in a million years imagined I would ever say!!!).
If you haven’t already participated in this process, however, it’s not too late to make a difference. Read the plan! (See box.) Incredibly, this amazing document manages to honor an array of passionate, wildly disparate opinions while presenting a graceful middle ground. It has much potential that interested parties can and should use to further meaningful projects for Asheville, and I encourage you to make good use of the opportunities it represents.
But at this point, it’s up to us to help make those recommendations reality. I urge everyone who cares about downtown Asheville to attend the May 26 public hearing, speak up for the plan, and help realize its potential.
[Downtown business owner Kitty Love is executive director of Arts2People and serves on the Downtown Commission. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.]