For most people, their sense of “history” begins when they arrive somewhere. So, here is my history of the French Broad River and what has evolved along it since 1986, when I started working for RiverLink
When I arrived in Asheville, I didn’t even know there was a river. The downtown was dead and scary, and the town’s general atmosphere was what I call 1929 “Depression melancholy hangover,” with just a few folks thinking Asheville could ever become a vibrant city.
The river wasn’t on anyone’s radar. No one could tell me the name of the river’s many bridges with any certainty. And the river was a place to avoid, which was easy since there was nothing to do when you got there. And it was, and can still be, difficult to find.
I became interested in the river in two ways. I went to the local Chamber of Commerce when I arrived and told them I had started a chamber in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and was looking to get involved in something in Asheville, my new home. They told me the river was at the end of Patton Avenue. They also gave me a key to a building and introduced me to the folks at the French Broad River Foundation. From that confluence, RiverLink was born — when economic interests (the chamber) and environmental interests (Jean Webb) met. Jean Webb was also my neighbor and became my best friend, my mentor and my hero.
NAYSAYERS AND BELIEVERS
I can remember Jerry Sternberg telling me the urban riverfront was just like Humpty Dumpty and couldn’t be fixed! I, of course, believed the more fitting nursery rhyme or metaphor to be the tortoise and the hare. The river was no longer a place to make a quick buck as the hare wanted. It was more a place for the tortoise to keep plodding along, project by project, property by property, plant by plant, to win the race to save the indomitable French Broad River. During the ’80s and a lot of the early ’90s, Jerry’s animal-rendering plant on Riverside Drive oozed a horrible smell from that permeated the air throughout the city, depending on which way the wind was blowing. If you can imagine, there were even more junkyards then than there are today.
After a successful charrette that RiverLink hosted in 1989 to develop the Riverfront Plan, we announced a French Broad River Yacht Club dinner and asked Asheville historian Milton Ready to be the speaker. He spoke about the French Broad and called it Asheville’s answer to Bangladesh — the poorest, most forgotten and neglected part of our city. Dr. Ready’s comment prompted Jerry Sternberg to hoist a sheet outside his A-frame on Riverside Drive proclaiming his building as Bangladesh City Hall. Jerry then presented me with a baseball cap, made in Bangladesh, with the words “Mayor of Bangladesh” scribbled in Magic Marker across the front of the cap.
Other folks were even less encouraging about the likelihood of the river becoming a destination for people to live, work and play. I can’t tell you how many civic leaders told us it was just too far from the downtown and was too hard to find and too far gone to ever be a viable community asset. Those same people thought that West Asheville would always be Worst Asheville and couldn’t imagine it becoming the vibrant neighborhood it has become today.
But for all the naysayers, there was a committed group of volunteers like Jean Webb, Wilma Dykeman, Peggy and Jim Brazell, Marylyn and Jim Seyler, Marjorie Maxwell, Marge Turbot, Mr. Greene, Harriet Haith, Julian Price, The Preservation Society, Jim Samsel, OE and Pat Starnes, Dennis and Barb Hodgson, Luther Smith, Ed Metz, the whole Mathews clan and hundreds of others who put their hearts, pocketbooks, vast life experiences and intelligence to work on behalf of the rebirth of the French Broad. Today RiverLink has over 1,700 volunteers who believe the river is the best place to live, work and play, and are putting their hearts, energy and pocketbooks into that rebirth.
I have some wonderful photos of Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt with Jean Webb in a canoe (we made the front page of the Washington Post with that photo) and with Wilma Dykeman at French Broad River Park after Secretary Babbitt floated our river. RiverLink was trying to have the French Broad named an American Heritage River. The designation would give the river preferential treatment under a President Bill Clinton initiative for federal funding. Somehow we got the governors of both Tennessee and North Carolina — a Republican and Democrat — to agree the French Broad was a worthy candidate for this recognition, and both endorsed our application.
This was a big deal, because the two states were locked in a legal battle over the effectively dead Pigeon River. Unfortunately, our application was never reviewed because of a hysteria that overtook Western North Carolina about the American Heritage River Initiative, complete with billboards, talk shows and TV ads proclaiming that the designation would result in a loss of property rights and predicting that the United Nations would invade us. I am not making this up. The New River took the French Broad’s place as an American Heritage River and has benefited from over $20 million in federal grants as a result. So far, no sightings of a U.N. takeover on the New River.
WHAT IF THE NAYSAYERS HAD WON?
Twenty years ago, very few could imagine the French Broad as it is today. Can you imagine how different and far behind in our efforts to become a green multimodal sustainable city would be if RiverLink had not bought the old Speedway and raised an additional $1 million to turn it into Carrier Park? Or if the old EDACO junkyard on Amboy Road were still operating as a junkyard instead of being remediated as a brownfield using EPA stimulus funds to conduct a highly sophisticated and replicable phytoremediation? Or if the N.C. Department of Transportation had not funded a 1.2-mile greenway from Carrier Park to Hominy Creek Park?
We have come such a long way in 20 years. But the new $14-plus-million grant announced from Tiger funds and the $5 million from the French Broad Metropolitan Planning Organization and the fact that the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay is the No. 1 priority for the MPO make us all feel gratified and excited about the future implementation of the plans.
What about the “blue buildings” on Riverside Drive? Does anyone remember those across from the Cotton Mill? They were 26,000 square feet of really ugly bright blue when we bought them. To reclaim that riverfront space, we recycled about 25 percent of the materials to help artists rehab their studios in the Phil Mechanic Building and then turned the property into the RiverLink Performance & Sculpture Park, where today we host RiverMusic and all sorts of events to enrich our community and attract people to the river.
Can you imagine not having the French Broad River Park and the dog park? Lots of folks were puzzled by RiverLink’s design to start the greenway project on the west bank of the river. It has taken almost 20 years, but French Broad River Park will finally extend along all the Duke Energy land on the west bank and connect up with the New Belgium site.
The 1992 plan that we commissioned Edward D. Stone Jr. to develop showed that linkage and envisioned pedestrian bridges and a four-mile greenway loop encompassing both sides of the river. That plan showed an artificial whitewater course instead of New Belgium on the site. We even hosted officers from the U.S. Olympic Organizing Team and tried to have the French Broad be named the site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater trials, rather than the isolated Ocoee River in Tennessee where it ended up being held. We are thrilled to have New Belgium now building on that site. We are proud partners in the rebirth of the old landfill site, which will demonstrate the very best management practices for stormwater controls, thanks to a $400,000 grant we received from the Clean Water Trust Fund to assist with the New Belgium project.
I have to pinch myself to remember it’s not a dream that, when we wanted to buy the Warehouse Studios in 1991, banks were reluctant to give us a loan. Bankers couldn’t imagine artists’ studios in old industrial buildings creating enough cash flow to support a mortgage. Julian Price gave us a balloon-payment loan to buy the Warehouse Studios. Four years later, we paid him back and were able to finance the building commercially, having proved that artists make enough money to pay rent and those rents could support a mortgage.
THE RIVER TODAY
The riverfront today boasts 14 artist-owned buildings, showing once again that arts and crafts are economically viable. I am pretty sure that Asheville’s riverfront is the largest “artist-owned” arts district in the country. The fate of the river continuing to be an arts destination rests with the willingness of the artists who own buildings to not cash out — to keep the rents low enough for other artists. It’s the tortoise-and-the-hare parable again. Do we want to make quick bucks or make a longer investment — of time, heart and wealth to authentically and organically continue to build community and long-term sustainability for the arts scene?
Today, banks are willing and competing to lend money to investors in the river. A riverfront building we and the Preservation Society sold in 1995 for $50,000 was recently resold for $1 million. There is rare consensus in our community in support of the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Plan, which sees our river corridors as future high-density, mixed-use, mixed-income multimodal transit corridors — our next development frontier. But choices will have to be made.
In 2011, RiverLink acquired an old tire store at Pearson Bridge. Do you remember what an eyesore that building was? Trash, discarded tires and graffiti ruled. An outdoor-recreation business operates there now that has allowed 2,500 people, so far this year, to float, paddle board, enjoy and discover our magnificent resource — the French Broad.
The bus tours we started giving in 1986 were all about dreaming and planning for the future. Today, almost 30 years later, those plans and dreams are coming true and our bus tours are still filled with people who want to dream with us about the next 30 years, as well as see what progress has been made in the past 30 years.
THE RIVER TOMORROW
OK, so looking ahead — what’s next for our rivers? The Swannanoa River is surely on the community “to do” list, as outlined in the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay. Let’s put greenways and bike paths on both sides of the Swannanoa through the Biltmore Village area. If we open up Thompson Street, which runs parallel to Swannanoa River Road, we can relieve congestion in the village, provide transportation alternatives, celebrate the Swannanoa River as the native trout stream that it is and stimulate more sustainable economic development that is mixed-use and mixed-income. Imagine if we had greenways and bike paths on both sides of the Swannanoa River, and if Thompson Street and Swannanoa River Road both allowed multi-modal traffic flow. Imagine how that would increase our tax base and transit options and improve the health of the river.
The new motto for lots of us who have been involved in the rebirth of the French Broad River watershed for over 30 years is “in our lifetime.” We hope to see a greenway all along the river that links at one end with the Appalachian Trail in Madison County and at the other end with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail on the Swannanoa River. When that’s accomplished, we’ll print a T-shirt proclaiming, “From Maine to Manteo — on the French Broad.”
We hope to see a greenway and multimodal transportation, from the headwaters in Transylvania County, with links to the Ecusta Trail, all the way to Madison County; a greenway along Hominy Creek that links to Haywood County; the reintroduction of passenger-train traffic along the river all the way to Knoxville, just as the popular Carolina Special used to do; the rebirth of our beloved Cotton Mill, twice struck by arsonists; and, and, and — and lots more.
Yes, I really do think it is the tortoise that will prevail, not Humpty Dumpty.
Karen Cragnolin has been the executive director of RiverLink since it was founded in 1986. She is a recovering tax attorney who has lived and worked on three continents and is thrilled to call Asheville and WNC home.