BY KAREN CRAGNOLIN
It’s not very often that the top appointed jobs at both the city and county are vacant at the same time. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s never happened before in my 32 years of living and working in Asheville. And given the gravity and scope of the issues now facing this area, we need to think carefully about how we fill those positions.
I can remember when the county manager also chaired the Board of Commissioners. In 1986, Curtis Ratcliff held that dual job, and he was everywhere. I also recall what a giant leap it was to appoint the first professional county manager.
That, of course, was only an early sign of the kind of sweeping changes that have since transformed the area. Hendersonville Road was two lanes back then. We dreamed about regionalism until the water agreement with Henderson County blew up, and we’re still feeling the repercussions of that today.
Remember when downtown Asheville consisted of tumbleweeds, boarded-up buildings, Tops for Shoes and Stone Soup? I remember going out to dinner and brown-bagging wine, because alcohol wasn’t served in some places. Now we excel at making craft liquors, beer and wine. I remember when downtown was thought to end at the intersection of Patton and Coxe avenues. These days I think of it as extending beyond the city center into Biltmore Village, the River Arts District and even West Asheville.
Seen from that perspective, today’s Asheville is almost unrecognizable. Some of that change has been positive: We’ve made “best of” lists in just about every category you can name. We’ve become a mecca for food and beer, and hotels have blossomed everywhere.
But the jury’s still out on other changes, and we need to consider their impacts on this community. Affordable housing is now a full-blown crisis, and I believe it will persist until we find a new approach. That’s just one glaring example of the challenges facing us — and why we need to think carefully about who fills those top administrative jobs and how they relate to each other.
One positive shift is that we’ve been forced to acknowledge the value, economic and otherwise, of preserving our natural resources. Indeed, this may be what saves us in the end. Wilma Dykeman was right: You can’t have a healthy economy without a healthy environment.
In 1986, people would have thought I was hallucinating if I’d told them that, one day, a dozen or more companies would be hosting over 50,000 trips a year on the French Broad River. Cut to 2018, though, and we have the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay, greenways with bike paths, breweries and restaurants right on the river, housing and artists’ studios in the RAD and, yes, a thriving economy made possible by this growth.
Most people would never have dreamed — and many resisted the idea — that the abundance and relative purity of our water source would become such a driving force in our attractiveness as a destination to live, work and play. That very success, however, only underscores the need for wise decisions going forward, and while our elected officials ultimately make those decisions, the city and county managers can have a big influence on how things turn out.
Our current situation also highlights past failures that we need to learn from. One maxim of economic development is that growth follows infrastructure. You put the road and other fundamentals into an area and then get out of the way: New development will follow. Yet both here and across WNC, infrastructure is still chasing after growth.
It’s not that we didn’t plan: We did, at least in some cases. We certainly hired enough consultants and held a ton of meetings. I, personally, have added my dots to hundreds of maps as I voted for one plan after another. Too often, though, we simply couldn’t reach agreement, and in the end, growth just happened.
Now, however, we have a chance to rewrite the script, and we owe it to ourselves to rethink, re-examine and adjust. I don’t pretend to know the answers, but Asheville isn’t the only community to have witnessed the kinds of changes we’ve experienced in recent decades. We should look at other places with similar histories and consider what lessons — whether positive or negative — we can learn from them. To help us do that, we need to hire city and county managers who’ve already successfully led a “destination” city, which is what we’ve become.
Of course, the current City Council and county commissioners will be the ones making those selections, but they may be influenced by what they hear from local residents. And going forward, we also need to think carefully about who we elect to shape this area’s future.
That, however, highlights another obstacle: this area’s Byzantine political structures. The other day, I was talking with a recent transplant who was dumbfounded to learn that six mayors serve Buncombe County’s roughly 250,000 people! She thought I was joking until I named them: Asheville, Biltmore Forest, Black Mountain, Montreat, Weaverville and Woodfin. There are also three voting districts for the county Board of Commissioners. Meanwhile, state lawmakers have now sliced up the city into five electoral districts. And when you factor in the state and federal districts, it’s enough to make your head spin.
That’s a whole lot of government, and not surprisingly, the turnout for these elections is mostly pretty dismal. When I ask people who their state and federal representatives are, they often don’t know or can’t remember. Is there a message here?
Are there any aspects of local government that could be consolidated or made more inclusive? Would eliminating some of those layers undermine the will of the people, or do we have so much government that it’s become inaccessible and unresponsive to most residents’ concerns? Does having so many people in charge mean that no one’s really in charge? Is the city just Asheville proper, or does this name now encompass a much larger geographic area?
Those are only some of the questions that truly deserve consideration and dialogue. But do we want a dialogue that’s strategic, thoughtful, balanced and inclusive? Or will it be “Batten down the hatches — it’s going to be a bumpy ride?”
Let’s think collectively about where we are now and where we want to be. And rather than emphasizing our differences, let’s focus on what we can agree on that serves the greatest number of residents.
I think we have solid agreement on gravity, at least, so that’s a start. I’d also venture to guess that none of us want WNC to become the “flavor of the month” that ends up being overloved and overused in the short term and then abandoned in favor of the next month’s selection.
In order to avoid that, we need city and county managers who, together with our elected officials, can tackle key issues and help us navigate this new reality called the greater Asheville area. Geography is destiny, and change is inevitable — but how we address those changes is up to us.
Karen Cragnolin was RiverLink’s executive director from its inception until her retirement in 2016.