An Asheville ‘leaver’ checks in

Nan K. Chase and friends

BY NAN K. CHASE

Have you ever muttered, while listening to someone complain about how poorly Asheville is run, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you just leave?”

Well, I did leave. Five years ago, I moved to a small town in southwest Virginia. I love the inky night sky, low-cost housing, minimal taxes, lack of property crime and road rage, and free parking.

Yet, I maintain a lively interest in Asheville and visit often. I have family and friends there, I shop and visit art galleries there, and sometimes I return for work. Naturally, I keep up with city news, tracking the latest Asheville outrage. Lately, media posts have focused on the “obscene” amount of money that the “promotion machine” called the Tourism Development Authority generates and plows back into big salaries and extensive marketing.

A recurring complaint is that more TDA money should go toward Asheville’s infrastructure and city services, as if the tourists themselves were responsible for municipal operations. One commenter ventured, “The TDA has been used as a scapegoat for the city’s incompetence.” But in fact, much of the ire now being aimed at the TDA — and tourism in general — merely echoes concerns about the tourism of a century ago, and the mismanagement and negligence of city government back then.

The more things change …

It was 100 years ago that Asheville hosted one of the biggest construction blowouts in American history, creating new amenities to attract visitors, with sophisticated promotions to match. During the 1920s the city borrowed and built until a bank crash in 1930, coming on the heels of the 1929 stock market collapse, exposed the rotting foundations: criminally negligent administrators whose malevolence stripped virtually all public deposits from the city, county, school district and other administrative (and debt-issuing) governmental units.

Coupled with the Great Depression, the bank crash led to nearly 50 years of penury in Asheville, followed by further decades of stagnation once the debts were finally paid off. Thomas Wolfe wrote about those horrible days, pinpointing the greed that drove the feverish speculation. And the glittering new tourism infrastructure of the 1920s has become today’s crumbling infrastructure — the very one that the current trove of tourists is now being asked to repair.

During the Depression, Asheville’s street maintenance crews were let go. Schools closed, and the Fire Department lost a quarter of its strength. And it was the collapse of those municipal services a century ago from which Asheville now suffers. Maintenance deferred, improvements snuffed, the water system ignored. Even more chilling, there were already calls back then to clean up the filth around Pack Square. In Asheville, it seems, nothing changes.

Do it right

For me, leaving Asheville was hard but necessary. I could see that during my lifetime the city services wouldn’t change appreciably, and paying big-city taxes for shoddy outcomes was simply unacceptable.

Take street cleaning. In almost every other American city of size, regular street cleaning helps keep stormwater systems functioning. San Francisco, for example, cleans every residential street at least twice a month (commercial streets at least weekly); signs are posted about the schedule, and vehicles must be off the streets or the owners incur hefty fines. In Asheville, according to a city website, “We count on you to let us know when there is flooding, clogged or broken storm drains, or when you’re [sic] street needs to be swept.”

Over the last two decades, despite massive private real estate investment and a burgeoning tax base, where are there any signs of improved operational efficiency?

Consider Bend, Ore., a tourist-friendly city of similar size (population about 110,000). There are 750 full-time city employees, or roughly one for every 147 residents. In Asheville, population 93,000, a recent head count of full-time city employees came to 1,246, or one for every 75 residents.

An Asheville Citizen report from 1920 remains relevant today: “Sometimes it happens that governments … grow careless. But whatever the explanation, it is certain that Asheville is suffering from a lax administration of the laws, and the time has come for all citizens to take home to themselves personal responsibility for lawlessness and to create a public sentiment which will strengthen and uphold the city administration in making Asheville a safe, cleaner and more wholesome place to live.”

Emphasis on “to live.” But it’s a cool place to visit.

Nan K. Chase is the author of Asheville: A History and Lost Restaurants of Asheville.

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About Nan Chase
Nan Chase is an author and freelance writer.

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13 thoughts on “An Asheville ‘leaver’ checks in

  1. North Asheville

    Thank you so much to Ms. Chase for this historical perspective.

  2. dyfed

    The absurd number of municipal employees—and foolish level of expenditures on things that are not core services—are incisive criticisms. Asheville wants more money, an expanded tax base, and to wrest control of room tax revenues from the TDA—but it has yet to prove that it can use its current budget wisely.

  3. RG

    Could someone also provide some detail on the number of consultants hired to do the work that city employees and elected officials are unable/unwilling to do?

    • Nan Chase

      You may have to do your own digging. Thanks to North Carolina’s rigorous open records law, virtually every document that touches Asheville city government (except legal, real estate, and personnel matters) is yours to inspect. If you have patience you should be able to discover all the eddies of money.

      • RG

        I’m curious why real estate matters are excluded, especially since council members such as Sandra Kilgore (a realtor) are known to accept campaign contributions from developers. Seriously concerning in a place such as Asheville.

      • Nan Chase

        I’d like to clarify those exceptions. For example, pending real estate transactions (and some legal and personnel matters) may be discussed in executive — closed — session, but all votes must be made in the open. For details on definitions of public records see Chapter 132 of the N.C. Open Records Law. It is not unusual for clerks in cities, counties, and state governments to balk at providing records, so keep at it. Every budget line is accessible by law.

  4. Enlightened Enigma

    Leadership has been lost on progressive democrats for decades and it shows. This is what elected democrats DO, they mismanage to the point of destruction, then beg for more money…

    • Nan Chase

      Thank you for those kind words. What was so exciting about being in Asheville was being part of the creative community. And you can’t put a price on that.

  5. Carl Mumpower

    Love this writer’s insights, style, and cogent focus. Thank you for making us a little smarter – as you also so nicely nudge a smile.

  6. Lyn

    Asheville’s infrastructure has been neglected, e.g. streets and sidewalks are full of cracks, schools need repairs and upgrades, parking garages are in danger of collapse, the city has more employees, yet services continue to decline, and police department that can’t keep a Chief or staff, etc. but the mayor publicly stated a couple months ago that reparations was the city’s priority. I would also note that the city has a well-funded DEI department.

  7. Jonny D

    For George, you just can’t stand it that there are a few people who see right through the BS
    Jonny D

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