BY JERRY STERNBERG
The timing of the city’s proposed moratorium on building hotels in our city comes at a good time of the year.
No problem if we have an overflow of tourists for this holiday season; these wayfaring strangers from lands far away can sleep in the manger. If the city permits it, we might start a cottage industry Airbnb for people who want to rent out their barns.
The recent declaration by the mayor and two City Council members that they would turn down an Extended Stay Hotel on Biltmore Avenue — prompting the project’s withdrawal — was especially cruel. The city allowed the builder to go through all the expensive steps required to get total approval from all regulatory agencies, and then several Council members announced their intent to vote against it because, in their great wisdom, they have made the arbitrary decision that Asheville already has too many hotels.
I am reminded of a lady who served on the Planning and Zoning Commission about 30 or 40 years ago who announced that she would vote against the construction of a new Ingles store on New Leicester Highway because Asheville already had too many grocery stores.
The second reason this was a callous decision is that this Extended Stay Hotel was a perfect fit, targeted toward those people who come here for in-hospital treatment from the extensive region served by Mission Hospital. The families and caretakers for these patients are being deprived of a convenient accommodation that would allow them to give assistance and support to their family member or friend. I suppose our compassionate Council members never gave this a thought.
I remember Asheville during the last part of the 20th century struggling and complaining that we were not bringing in enough tourists — and when they did come to town, they went to visit the Biltmore House, buy a McDonald’s hamburger and a tank of gas, and moved on to Cherokee.
The tourist business was so bad that the Grove Park Inn was only open six months a year, and eventually, almost all of the iconic downtown hotels closed down and were converted to residential units.
Asheville was desperately casting about for an attraction to bring in tourists to stay overnight similar to the Cherokee outdoor theater.
In the last few years, we taxpayers were sold on the fact that we should support the renovation and expansion of our civic center and our art museum as well as supporting numerous festivals. We passed a $74 million bond issue in 2016, part of which is for building greenways, supporting water activity facilities on the French Broad River and improving the River Arts District to accommodate the artists and the beer and restaurant culture.
We built soccer fields and developed a very extensive park system and promoted the North Carolina Arboretum. We upgraded McCormick Field (even our baseball team is called the Asheville Tourists).
For decades, we have subsidized the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Coalition to attract new business.
We were told all this public expense and sacrifice of taxpayers’ money would “put heads in beds.”
Now we have built it, and they are coming.
However, the mostly Facebook fools are screaming that we must stop all this development because we have great traffic congestion and downtown is so crowded, or else Asheville will lose all its character, and we will become more like Charlotte or Atlanta.
I suspect that most of these whiners are Yankees and flatlanders who escaped some other hellhole and have contributed to our population growth. Now they are here are yelling, “Raise the drawbridge!” I wouldn’t be surprised if they ask Council for money to build a beautiful wall.
The obvious economic naiveté on behalf of Council is mind-boggling. When downtown hotels are selling out during leaf-peeper season at $500 a night, it doesn’t take rocket science to realize that we do not have enough hotel beds.
Council complains that hotels don’t pay living wages. Neither do half the employers in this city. I support a citywide minimum wage, but that issue is opposed by our anti-Asheville state legislature.
In the meantime, the best way to increase wages is to create more jobs in our already-tight job market.
Council overlooks that all this new tourist business supports and sustains thousands of small entrepreneurs, artists, craftspeople, restaurants and entertainment venues in the city that also pay taxes and are elevating themselves above the living wage.
Council complains that they can’t afford the infrastructure to support all these tourists. Please tell me where the hell are all our increased taxes generated by real estate expansion going? I read the real estate transfers, and the dollars are enormous. This should be increasing property tax revenues significantly.
The Council says to developers, “We don’t want your stinking hotels; we want you to build affordable housing.” I have been a longtime advocate for affordable housing (see my June 20 Xpress column, “An Unvarnished Look”), but Council has to understand that we have a capitalistic system and that developers can only build those projects that will show a profit after they have invested their own and borrowed money. If the project becomes a nonprofit, it will fail. Even if they try to invest in for-profit housing, they run into the powerful Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods organization made up of 57 NIMBY neighborhoods and are quite often thwarted by their screaming opposition.
Council must understand that we have very poor prospects for industrial expansion, which normally produces higher wages, because there are almost no industrial buildings available and very little suitable land available for new buildings.
I was born and have lived here longer than most of the population. I understand that the tourists visiting us cause some inconveniences, but I am thrilled when I walk downtown, especially at night, and throngs of people fill our streets and are having a wonderful time.
If traffic is an issue for you, just look to the city politicians who have blocked our interstate improvements for the last 20 years and the City Council that is jamming up our streets with all their mindless multimodal imprudence.
Let’s welcome our tourists to share the joys of our magnificent Western North Carolina area and realize they bring us prosperity and diversity and that many of the pleasures we enjoy here would not be affordable without the tourist dollars.
Let’s not have to change the name of our baseball team to “The Asheville Obstructionists.”
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.