A year ago, I happened upon a young father with his wife, two children and in-laws on the sidewalk on the corner at the Haywood Park Hotel. Standing behind them, I heard him share the history of the Flatiron Building. He pointed as he explained, and they looked up in fascination.
Back in 1986, like so many of Asheville’s marvelous buildings, the Flatiron was nearly empty and in considerable disrepair. It would be a year or two before it was revived, before it took its corner stage anew, reminiscent of its previous glory.
For those of us involved in Asheville-Buncombe Discovery, a non-profit designed to help facilitate downtown’s revitalization, our mission was to communicate a vision for downtown and ensure its promise for years to come. We held hard-hat receptions with developers and citizens in construction sites with silver candlesticks, flowers and refreshments set out on Sheetrock stretched between sawhorses. We took bus trips to other cities to learn how Asheville might change our downtown landscape. We held design workshops in empty storefronts where local residents listed ideas and dreams on maps and charts. And ever so slowly, the revival of downtown supporters emerged.
Protecting those initial public and private reinvestments and ensuring their long-term success was critically important to the future of downtown — the downtown we know today. In a city that had abandoned its center, we needed to re-establish citizen-ownership and responsibility.
And one event, Discovery Day, helped do just that — for our children. Each year for nearly a decade, about 2,000 Buncombe County fourth-grade students spent a month studying the history, architecture and culture of downtown in their classrooms. And on the first Friday of May, all those children came to town, beginning the day by gathering at the Civic Center. From there, they fanned out, walking the streets and studying the pages of their curriculum books, led by dozens of specially trained tour guides. They saw firsthand and touched what they had been studying. Pack Square was closed to traffic for the event. It became their picnic area and playground. For one day, Discovery Day, these children “owned” downtown Asheville, and they felt it. They danced and sang. They cheered and released thousands of balloons that traveled to places far and wide: Seattle, Miami, Dallas and more, according to reports from people who found them.
Discovery Day’s goal? To give the city to its children. To make it theirs. To transfer a deep and abiding respect for its hopes, character and treasures. We wanted them to value it, to take care of it for years to come.
On that day last year, I approached the young father who had pointed out the Flat Iron Building to his family, and asked, “How do you know all this?”
“When I was 9 and in the fourth grade,” he replied. “I learned about this and many of our wonderful downtown buildings at something called Discovery Day. I’ve never forgotten.” He went on, “I’m 38 now. I live and work here. I’ve never wanted to leave. I’m proud of my community and this downtown. And I want my own children to learn the same things I learned about downtown, so they will love it and appreciate how special it is, too.”
Many, many initiatives and thousands of people have reshaped our downtown over the past several decades. As a result, downtown, once an empty theater set, is now a colorful stage of activity, commerce and culture. One of those initiatives was Mountain Xpress, which listened to our residents and gave voice to the tapestry of our community’s change.
Karen Tessier is founder and president of Market Connections Inc., a full-service marketing and public relations firm that has served over 200 clients since 1996. For roughly a decade prior to starting her own firm, Karen served as executive director of Asheville-Buncombe Discovery, a non-profit focused on the revitalization of downtown Asheville.