Community reflects on Cragnolin and her legacy

RIVER CHAMPIONS: Author Wilma Dykeman, left, and RiverLink's first executive director, Karen Cragnolin, share a moment at RiverLink's Admirals' Dinner in 1994. Photo courtesy of RiverLink

When Asheville’s Karen Cragnolin died Jan. 22, our region lost a dedicated champion of the French Broad River — the first executive director of the nonprofit RiverLink, a mover and shaker who left an indelible mark on the riverfront and the hearts of those who knew her.

A piece that Cragnolin herself wrote for Xpress in 2014, “Saving the French Broad River: Naysayers, Start Paddling,” offers a detailed account in her own distinctive voice of the efforts to revitalize the riverfront. And her online obituary ( fills in many biographical and other details, along with noting that a celebration of her life is yet to come.

To gauge what she meant to the community, Xpress reached out to a number of locals who knew her or observed her in action for their reflections on someone who will surely go down in Asheville’s history as one of its most significant change agents.

A lasting legacy

I don’t remember Karen Cragnolin ever saying the word “can’t.” Her work with RiverLink was sustained by her undaunted belief in a wonderful outcome for Buncombe County and beyond. She was an advocate on so many levels.

During her yearslong commitment to the French Broad River, she was patient, yet eager to get the necessary work done. She honored the past and embraced the future with gusto and made friends with the doubters. She was tireless, courageous, fearless and persevered in the face of criticism and controversy.

Karen recognized that the health of the community depended on the health of the French Broad. She knew that the environment didn’t have to be at the expense of the economy, and the economy didn’t have to be at the expense of the environment. Her enthusiasm and energy attracted an amazing group of believers, from politicians, environmentalists, businesspeople and more.

Today, we owe Karen Cragnolin a huge debt of gratitude for the greenways, bikeways, parks and River Arts District that help define us. I am honored to have known her, called her friend and thank her for her lasting legacy.

— Leni Sitnick
Mayor of Asheville, 1997-2002

A river runs through us

Karen Cragnolin, circa 2016/Photo by Cindy Kunst

When she first came to the mountains in the 1980s, Karen Cragnolin recognized the Thames-like French Broad River as the organ of creation and recreation for Asheville and much of Western North Carolina. Few others did. The genesis of much of Asheville’s history, the river then resembled a flood plain littered with automobile junkyards, landfills, moldering warehouses, railroad turntables and abandoned buildings. I labeled it Asheville’s Bangladesh. Jerry Sternberg defiantly and proudly called himself its mayor.

No more. Now it’s aptly described as a creative hub for the region, an arts district filled with psychedelic murals, art and craft studios and galleries, small and diversified businesses, dining, breweries and parks. Lots of them. Credit Karen Cragnolin for that. And Jerry Sternberg, the best of contrarians. It wasn’t easy.

Visionaries, especially passionate “tall women” like Karen Cragnolin, seldom are appreciated — only criticized — in their own time. As an outsider, Karen confronted, then bridged cultures — those of mountaineers who loved the older river raceway and who derided Asheville’s “artsy” community, an entrenched elite of mill and land owners along the river, and of timid elected officials who preferred building new jails to riverwalks and parks. Yet she also brought a new sense of civitas, of stewardship and ownership in the river and all it touched. She was the nurturing link that runs through us all.

— Milton Ready
Retired UNC Asheville history professor

Focused but fun-loving

I first met Karen around 1987; I was working for the French Broad River Foundation, a now-defunct nonprofit, and she’d just been hired by the Chamber of Commerce to head up its Riverfront Attraction Committee.

If the area could be made more appealing, they reasoned, it might induce tourists to linger in Asheville beyond the one day it took to visit Biltmore Estate. Hard to imagine that now, but that’s how things were back then.

Needless to say, Karen stepped up and, more than any other single individual, helped transform what was mainly a string of decrepit warehouses and auto graveyards into the vibrant urban riverfront we see today.

I moved on to other endeavors, but Karen remained tirelessly focused on her goal. Through the years, we enjoyed a remarkable friendship, sustained by three-hour lunches marked by lively, wide-ranging conversation. Among the countless fond memories I have of her, I still chuckle over this one:

In 2000, my then-partner and I began leading bike tours in France’s Loire Valley. Karen signed up for one, and when she handed in the required waiver form, she’d signed it “Karen I-Can’t-Ride-A-Bike Cragnolin.” True to her word, she spent the eight days riding in the “sag wagon” with Francoise and enjoying the food, wine and scenery without breaking a sweat.

— Peter Gregutt
Xpress contributing editor

A driving force

I met Karen when she became the first executive director of RiverLink in the early ’80s. Several years before, there was a fledgling effort to focus attention on the potential of the French Broad River riverfront. We had seen what San Antonio, Texas, had done with its riverfront, turning it into a major tourist destination and amenity for locals. The French Broad River Foundation established a Riverfront Improvement Committee and started getting folks down to the river to see the opportunities and identify constraints. The first French Broad RiverFest was held on the river near the old ice house. The Asheville Chamber of Commerce established a Riverfront Improvement Initiative with the goal of getting tourists to stay one extra day in Asheville after visiting the Biltmore Estate.

Karen got involved in the Asheville Chamber effort and made revitalization of the riverfront a major focus of RiverLink’s mission. Over time, she brought people with various backgrounds and interests into the discussion and effort, including landowners and business owners, city officials, artists, planners, landscape architects, water resource management professionals, river rats and many others. She brought Wilma Dykeman, author of The French Broad, into the effort, and they became good friends and strong advocates for river improvement.

City officials were focused on downtown redevelopment and were somewhat hesitant to refocus attention on the riverfront, but Karen was able to eventually get the city to buy in. She advocated for the city to allocate resources to the effort. RiverLink organized a series of riverfront redevelopment charrettes to get professional and public input on the community’s vision for the river and begin a multiyear planning effort.

Over the years, several very impressive redevelopment plans were prepared, including the Wilma Dykeman Riverfront Plan. Karen got some national media attention focused on the effort, which created local excitement and strengthened support. She secured many state, federal and private foundation grants to develop plans and begin the redevelopment process. She encouraged the city to put the riverfront effort in its capital improvement budgets.

She brought so many people into the fold and partnered with the Land of Sky Regional Council in recognizing individuals and organizations for their river improvement efforts through the annual Friend of the River Awards. She also worked with the city to develop the beautiful French Broad River Park, the first within the city. She played a key role in developing Carrier Park that began the effort to create a greenway along the river.

Without a doubt, Karen is the person most responsible for the transformation of the Asheville riverfront. It is amazing to see the results of her work over the past 35 years. When I stroll along the new greenway in the River Arts District, I think of Karen as the driving force that made it all a reality. What a tremendous legacy. The city and region is a better place, thanks to Karen.

— Bill Eaker
Former senior environmental planner
Land of Sky Regional Council

Fighter for the riverfront

When I was hired as Asheville’s planning director in 1999, almost immediately two of the city’s most important change agents visited me — Pat Whalen and Karen Cragnolin. Each had a compelling vision for Asheville’s future: Pat for the downtown and Karen for the rivers. The transformations they envisioned have become reality, from the South Slope’s continuing conversion from warehousing and heavy commercial to a revitalized mixed-use and entertainment district to the incredible changes we have seen along the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers.

Karen was such a fighter for refocusing attention on the city’s riverfront. It took a fighter, someone to take the brunt of the culture war necessary to convert a beloved racetrack to the West Asheville treasure called Carrier Park, to fill abandoned warehouses with artist studios, to generate funky from forlorn.

Often one of the real tragedies in life’s short span is not being able to see what comes next. Thankfully, Karen did get a chance to see her work-life’s passion so significantly realized, but she was also always ready to imagine what comes next. We will miss you, Karen Cragnolin, and we’ll often think of you as we enjoy the fruits of your labors.

— Scott Shuford

Smart and determined

I knew Karen for 10 years, even before I moved to Asheville. She was a tough, smart and determined visionary with a great sense of humor who transformed our city and the region.

Asheville’s great outdoor spaces and economy would not have happened without Karen’s commitment and focus. She had a knack for bringing together whoever and whatever was needed to reach the goal. She loved to laugh and tell stories. The ones about how Carrier Park and French Broad River Park came to be were well told with tongue-in-cheek and chutzpah!

I greatly respected Karen and mourn her loss to all of us.

— Anne E. Keller
RiverLink board chair

Eye toward the long game

As a RiverLink board member and Wilma Dykeman Riverway Plan Task Force member in the early 2000s, I had great vantage point to know Karen Cragnolin.

For decades, Asheville’s river had been ignored and polluted. Karen saw the potential and educated herself and others about all the varied pieces of the puzzle that had to fit together for the French Broad riverfront to become the recreational and cultural gem that it is today.

She was a strategic thinker and a doer. But the quality I admired the most was her perseverance. At the same time Eastern North Carolina suffered from devastating 1999 Hurricane Floyd damage, Karen fought for state funding for Western North Carolina to protect the French Broad River Basin from the potential damage of future, similar storms.

She lobbied for and won approval for purchasing four contaminated land parcels along the river — which she wanted for future open space that could become greenways and parks. Unfortunately, only one parcel was purchased due to local government foot-dragging. Karen just shook it off and kept moving. Thankfully, her tenacity and eye toward the long game led to the parcels being cleaned up and completing the recent RADTIP revitalization zone that includes greenways, boat launches and park space today.

Karen was among several female nonprofit leaders who have shaped Asheville in immeasurable ways. She was way ahead of most businesses, lenders and local government in her advocacy for the river. May her impact and memory inspire a new generation of leaders to celebrate and protect our river and other valuable aspects of our city.

— Jim Samsel

Wonderful sense of humor

Karen had a wonderful sense of humor, as I hope this anecdote illustrates.

In 2012, Karen was an original member of the board of directors of the Wilma Dykeman Legacy. In my wisdom, I had developed a schedule for quarterly board meetings that specified a 4 p.m. start time during our spring and summer meetings, and a 3 p.m. start time during our autumn and winter meetings. What could possibly go wrong?

You guessed it: Karen showed up at 4 o’clock for one of our 3 p.m. meetings. As she walked into the room, all eyes were on her. I said we were just finishing. She broke into a smile and asked, “Did I miss anything?” Every person in that room burst out laughing.

— Jim Stokely
President of the Wilma Dykeman Legacy

Rescuing the river for all

Karen Cragnolin rescued much of the mighty, majestic French Broad River and its sumptuous banks from a capitalism so abusive that it had, by the early 1990s, transformed the once-pristine waters into a toxic brew and its once-bountiful banks into a massive trash dump.

The Broad’s water had become so lethal that it could almost pickle you in formaldehyde and burn you with acid, according to an analysis by the late Rick Maas of UNC Asheville. Successful resistance to Asheville’s efforts to get citizens to drink from this noxious nastiness was one reason Green Line, which became Mountain Xpress, was founded.

Now, in large part thanks to Ms. Cragnolin, you can usually safely swim in the wondrous river, though you may get drunk from the spilled beer of tubing tourists. However, you can then sweat off the inebriation by strolling, biking or skateboarding in one of its beautiful river parks stretching for luscious miles — miles which now host elegant river oaks and resplendent bird wildlife. Miles that Ms. Cragnolin helped socialize, giving it to all Ashevilleans instead of letting capitalist developers ravage it even more.

— Bill Branyon
Asheville author

A life lived with gusto

Karen in the 1980s was a dynamo of ideas, dreams and plans for the French Broad riverfront. She inspired me as well as dozens of other people interested in the water quality and beauty of the French Broad River Basin.

She enlisted the help and cooperation of the movers and shakers in the area and was not shy about approaching anyone who could help realize that goal. But Karen was not only driven, she was kind, funny and a little naughty.

I went to France on a bicycle trip with a group that included her, and I don’t remember laughing so hard in all my life. She truly lived with gusto and the belief that big plans could come to fruition with effort, patience and a touch of Karen persuasion.

I admired her tremendously and was also in awe of her, but most of all, I loved her. She was there for me in a very dark moment of my life with support and kindness. I’ll never forget her.

— Linda Taylor

Thriving on a cold reception

Karen Cragnolin had a vision for the river that very few understood when she moved to Asheville. She had lived in many parts of the world and understood how important riverfront development can be to a successful community.

She was ridiculed by many elected officials and government staff when she organized and started RiverLink. Karen was a lawyer and had worked extensively in bringing folks with otherwise diverse points of view together for a common benefit. I think Karen enjoyed and thrived on the cold reception she initially received from her river plans because she was confident in her ability to persuade and advocate others to understand and ultimately support her vision.

Over time, Karen won over many people who initially thought she was crazy for suggesting that the river could become a thriving business and recreational area. She was relentless in her efforts to educate, plan and dream about the river’s potential.

Karen always did her homework. She extensively researched and appreciated the history, culture, geography and physical beauty of the river. Karen was an excellent leader and facilitator of the highest order. She was an exceptional person who will be missed as our community focuses on how and not whether development will occur on the river.

— David Gantt
Former chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners

Visionary leadership

Karen Cragnolin’s recent death has been a tremendous loss for her family, her many friends and for the greater community. We were blessed to have had her incredible visionary leadership to improve our rivers and inspire, encourage and mentor others to join her in these efforts.

Karen was someone whose health challenges didn’t stop her from continuing to civically contribute and to stay connected with her friends. She was always there for her friends right up until she died, and my inbox is filled with emails that hold her wit and proud photos of her family.

Early on, Karen encouraged me to participate in the Leadership Asheville program and to look for volunteer opportunities on city boards and commissions. She also offered support to me professionally and introduced me to other interesting and active women in the community.

Karen sponsored me to join her in membership to Asheville’s historic Pen & Plate Club, and she was always thrilled to be able to go and enjoy the camaraderie, a fine meal and thoughtful essays presented by the club membership. In later years, that meant me learning to maneuver her wheelchair-accessible van to take her, which was slightly daunting for someone who learned to drive on a VW Beetle.

However, it will be continued visits down to the riverfront and trips in the canoe I won at the first RiverFest in 1986 that will always help to bring Karen’s spirit close to me and to those who knew and loved her.

— Jane Gianvito Mathews
President of Mathews Architecture


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2 thoughts on “Community reflects on Cragnolin and her legacy

  1. Voirdire

    Yes, a terrible loss is Karen’s absence…. but we’re all so very grateful for all she did for our community. God’s speed Karen.

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