Proving the naysayers wrong, one property at a time in Asheville

The early ’90s was an interesting time. So much work had been done in the ’80s, particularly by the city, trying to bring downtown back, but it was still pretty much a ghost town, particularly after 5 o’clock. The buildings on the corner where Malaprop’s and Mobilia are now had stood empty and boarded up for years. The Fine Arts Theatre was empty and boarded up. There was a tree growing in the building where the City Bakery is now. A new group of restaurants, like Café on the Square, had opened on Pack Square. But people said business owners who tried to make a go of it downtown were crazy, particularly in thinking they could get people to come downtown to eat.

You could park anywhere at night because all the spaces were empty. What little downtown residential space there was the early ’90s was low-income housing. And the few people who lived in upstairs spaces kept a low profile because many of those spaces didn’t meet code. Julian Price was one of the pioneers in living downtown. He converted a space upstairs on Battery Park Avenue into a residential apartment. People making a racket, cruising around the bricked-up Federal Building (the Grove Arcade) used to drive him crazy at night.

Julian invested in lots of downtown properties through Public Interest Projects, calling it just enlightened self-interest, since he lived there. But he also believed a downtown in which people wanted to live would provide the community with big environmental and economic benefits. We had great entrepreneurs with energy and ideas, like Bob and Ellen Carr at Tops for Shoes; Emoke B’racz at Malaprop’s; Marc Rosenstein at The Market Place; and John Cram at Blue Spiral 1 and the Fine Arts Theatre.

But in the early ’90s, banks were not lending on downtown development. When Public Interest Projects was trying to help get the Grove Arcade reopened, we approached a local bank for some financing help. The bank said it would help if we not only put up as collateral the other buildings we’d already renovated and filled, but also deposited with it an amount equal to the loan we were seeking.

Public Interest Projects helped businesses open storefronts and bought some of the boarded-up buildings to convert the upstairs into residences. We turned one of those spaces into the Laughing Seed with Joan and Joe Eckert. People told us it would never work, that Asheville would never support a vegetarian restaurant. Twenty years later, it’s still going strong. Because people were, in fact, waiting for the chance to live downtown, every apartment building we renovated was fully rented before we finished it. Talented local entrepreneurs and the pioneers who opted to live downtown, together with brave investments by people like the Armstrongs, McGuires and Lantziuses, turned the tide.

By the late ’90s, the change was striking. Sitting outside Mellow Mushroom one weeknight in April in ’98 or ’99, I couldn’t get over the number of people on the sidewalks. Downtown was coming back. The naysayers were wrong. Downtown Asheville was clearly coming alive.

Pat Whalen has been an Asheville resident since 1976. He has been president of Public Interest Projects Inc. (founded by Julian Price) since 1991 and active in downtown revitalization efforts since 1984. He is a former chairman of the Asheville Downtown Commission.


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4 thoughts on “Proving the naysayers wrong, one property at a time in Asheville

  1. Grant Millin

    In 1980 my family moved here from California and invested in this community, mainly through our efforts with T.S. Morrison & Co, Founded in 1895 this hardware store and later gift/general store was the oldest continuously operating retail store. Store founder Theodore Summey Morrison is buried at Riverside Cemetery among other Asheville historical figures.

    I remember meeting Tom and Jim Morrison and all the work we put that store. The back of the store still had coal in the coal bins and there was MASSIVE amounts of obsolete farm equipment and other unneeded material in the top two floors. Before the Navy selling, stocking, and cleaning up this piece of Asheville’s history was my first job. Former council woman Robin Cape and her husband at the time sold antiques on the second floor later. Climbing a third floor ladder and checking out the roof view of Asheville was just one of the cool things about the place.

    It’s not true that downtown was “boarded up” between 1980 and the mid-90’s when Julian Price came on the scene. There were many entrepreneur’s up and down Lexington Ave. and popping up along Patton, Haywood, College and all over town. It’s hard to capture ’Total History’ but this town is where its at based on the efforts of a great many individuals. Obviously the period between the Great Depression and 1980 wasn’t a renaissance for Asheville. But the cancellation of the downtown mall program was an opportunity many folks took on.

    Iris Photographics, Gatsby’s, and the Movable Feast were other Lexington/Walnut are businesses around this time. Stone Soup moved downtown from the Manor Inn later in the 80’s at the current Mellow Mushroom location. A lot happened in the 80’s despite the terrible Reaganomics environment.

    When I read the following C-T story concerning the final T.S. Morrison owner’s decision to sell off all the stock and historical accoutrements I called the historical preservation society seeking an intervention. I suggested T.S. Morrison & Co. become the WNC Heritage Museum. This would have included the UNCA Diversity Education Center’s research and displays on WNC slavery and other evidence of apartheid since. Perfect… but “no money for historical preservation” was the word I got.

    As a GroWNC consortium member I saw a suggestion for a similar museum idea in the GroWNC strategies.

    People loved coming into T.S. Morrison & Co. and usually loved working there. It had a vital vibe when I walked in the first time, despite the coal dusted tin ceiling and ancient, totally non-corporate big box home improvement customer experience. It was a new T.S. Morrison & Co. by time my parents sold the place, but we did our best to honor this place.

    Some thought’s from a former employee:

    • Margaret Williams

      Thank you, Grant, for sharing some of your family history and telling us more about T. S. Morrison & Co.

      • Grant Millin

        You are welcome, Margaret.

        That there were a lot of blown out, half-demolished and empty buildings in central Asheville in 1980 is something I should have made clear.

        In many ways Asheville was both better and worse off in those days. Chances were most people on the streets were our own locals. Easier to get work as there wasn’t a major carrying capacity issue.

        That there’s a huge nonprofit industry here is WNC trying to fix thousands of crashed lives 35 years since Reaganomics went live is definitely part of what’s not working.

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