We tell ourselves — often — that we are a tourist town, maybe hoping to excuse ourselves for the self-harm of supporting businesses that pay starvation wages.
Comprehensive plan or no, the systematic destruction of the largest and most prominent of downtown’s tourist landmarks — Beaucatcher Mountain — continues apace. A 180-unit complex finishes construction, and a 100-unit one starts up. Plots on Windswept are clear-cut on Thanksgiving Day (what could possibly have been so urgent?). Pretty soon, the backdrop to downtown won’t be green, it will be serried ranks of apartment blocks, California-style — along with Californialike traffic and mudslides.
Are these the actions of a town that wants tourists to keep coming back? No, they are the actions of people caught up in the frenzy of yet another property bubble.
Prosperity Through Property died as an idea at Appomattox a long time ago. And yet, zombielike, it keeps returning to sweep up another generation in another property bubble. Property speculation does two things: It divides its participants into “winners” and “losers,” and generates inflation. It certainly does not generate what we need — new wealth.
Reason only rarely prevails against the madness of crowds, but here goes anyway.
The Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce is busy promoting Asheville as a center for advanced manufacturing businesses. The return on attempts to bribe them to come to Asheville with tax handouts, loans and grants will always be low — every other city in the country is trying the same thing.
The [city’s] current comprehensive plan mentions “industries of the mind.” We don’t know what they’ll be, but we do know that they will demand a degree of computer literacy far beyond what we teach our kids at the moment. Twenty years ago, the computer revolution had destroyed the old clerical jobs and created new ones — that got outsourced almost immediately. But just as there was no rule saying that those jobs had to be done in India or the Philippines, there is no rule saying that they can’t come to Asheville — just a lot of defeatist drivel.
A package to attract those jobs would require many moving parts, but the longest lead-time component would be an effort to get all our kids into an Asheville City Schools computer literacy pipeline. Starting with elementary school, they should be exposed to computing as fun — weekly rather than annual Hours of Code, maybe. Then by graduation from the middle school In Real Life [after-school] program, they should be able to design and build their own video games. Finally, by high school graduation, they should be able to use computational thinking in problem-solving. This pipeline would ensure that kids from Asheville starting work or college stand out from their peers as unafraid of computers, confident in using them creatively and for problem-solving.
There isn’t going to be any federal or state money to help — and with the state of local finances, it would have to be entirely volunteer-based. But the returns to it would be high, with Asheville transforming itself into a center of excellence for our high-tech world. Larger transformations have happened: Within my memory, what is now Silicon Valley was orange groves, yet the area has generated 500,000 new jobs in the last 10 years.
Thanks to the Asheville City Schools Foundation and its volunteers, we’re already underway.
— Geoff Kemmish