Saving the French Broad River: Naysayers, start paddling

PLAN IN PROGRESS: We've come a long way since Riverlink began working to spearhead redevelopment along the French Broad River in 1986, says founder Karen Cragnolin. Many of the features in this 1992 plan for the French Broad River have been built, making the riverfront a popular destination for residents and visitors alike. Image courtesy of RiverLink

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.


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.


2-Cragnolin-EDACO crushed cars Before

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.

Construction of French Broad River Park.
Construction of French Broad River Park.


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.


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.



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14 thoughts on “Saving the French Broad River: Naysayers, start paddling

  1. Curt Crowhurst

    So when does the City of Asheville, Watershed Counties, Artists & Communities of WNC say Thank You to RiverLink?

  2. Kevin Peer

    Great work RiverLink and Karen Cragnolin! Thank you for your vision, hard work and persistence in helping to resurrect our relationship with the French Broad through protection, water quality improvement and accessibility.

  3. Anonymous

    RiverLink needs to be audited and the info needs to be made public. They also need new leadership if they are going to contribute to Asheville in the future.

    • Michael Cangi

      If you want to voice an opinion that needs my ear, you need to be person enough to have your name stand behind it.

  4. Ole Bob

    This story tells, unintentionally, the tale to the efforts of the cities upper crust to drive away the “undesirable” poor, namely your blue collar workers and lower middle class folks scraping to get by, and replace them with a class of poor acceptable to the upper class- the struggling artist.

    It just happens that the center for life for these people was centered along the river, where real estate was cheaper.

    In that fight to remove the undesirable rednecks from Asheville all the things they used to earn a living, to get by, and to be entertained had to go. The Asheville Motor Speedway is the most notable example, such loud and clearly not in sync with the “new Asheville” that the new arrivals taking over envisioned.

    The junkyards? They were not just ugly, but all those undesirable poor people drove thier unsightly cars there to buy discounted parts so they could keep their only means of transportation going. Clearly unacceptable, and a quote I remember with Riverlink being upset because a junkyard took a buyout and moved instead of going away altogether showed that.

    All those ugly industrial users, warehouses and other commercial activities? Clearly unacceptable ways to make money in the “new” Ashevile. Those had to go so the new class of poor that the Asheville elite find acceptable could be moved in.

    Yeah, you have to know the real history here and have watched it from the viewpoint that is not from the ivory tower vantage point downtown to understand it, but this transformation didn’t happen without a lot of people being pushed out and away from Asheville- intended or not- to make way for what the new arrivals wanted to see.

    • johnny history

      You’re crazy. If what you think is true, why is Pisgah View still standing, with every apartment full, a block from Carrier Park? No one has pushed these folks out. As for the “unacceptable” industrial users, what do you think is all along the river on the other side along Meadow Rd, successful industrial businesses.
      You seem to be a disgruntled race track fan hiding behind a flawed gentrification argument.

      • Ole Bob

        sure, I was a race fan. I grew up going with my father who had raced there in his youth and have many fond memories of the people, experiences and culture- but that culture wasn’t compatable with the idea of what Asheville shoild be that Karen brought with here when she arrived or with what the well heeled visitors to the new hotel on the Biltmore Estate found tolerable.

        I was also a customer at the junkyards, buying parts to keep my cars going during the lean years when I lost jobs and then struggled to start and run my own business.

        And that business used that “ugly” warehouse space down by the river that was totally unacceptable to see being used as we were- but now that it is occupied by “artists” mostly subsisting on various government handouts and grants it is “quaint” and acceptable use of that same building- except when I was there we kept things in proper repair and didn’t have the power shut off.

        But the way of life so many of us lived that revolved around the river just wasn’t acceptable to the new arrivals who just found it all to be unacceptable. As another poster mentioned it could be analogous to the arrival of the first Europeons here in these hills- they came in sure that what they wanted and how they lived was the right way and proceeded to push the natives away and destroy their way of life. It’s hard to not see the same pattern in what Karen and Riverlink have done- show up, look at what the people already there are doing and declare they are all wrong, run them out, and move in new settlers who follow the way of life that you want and believe in. Both times supported by government. It’s the same old story, just played out in a less severe way.

  5. Michael Cangi

    When people devote a great deal of their dreams, time, and energy to projects that benefit everyone (friend and foe alike), it is a great tribute to them for those efforts to be rewarded with positive results. Great job, Karen Cragnolin, Riverlink, and their many sponsors, benefactors, and supporters on all levels!!

  6. Joe Luna

    Great article! Moved here in 1994 & couldn’t find the river; now we love the music events & restaurants.

    Way to go Karen & everyone involved in transforming the river!

  7. Bryan

    Ole Bob said it well. The article tells of what was done in and very one sided way, but it sure doesn’t tell the whole story of the price that was paid or how underhanded some of the dealings was done. The author said “For most people, their sense of “history” begins when they arrive somewhere.” I agree, but what about the people that was here? What about there history? What about the people that made there living , supported there family from the river, or used the speedway as there form of entertainment ? I guess because of most of the people being poor or to “country” to fit the model select people wanted it didn’t matter what happen to them. Don’t get me wrong the”Old Asheville” did need help and things did need some change and the “New Asheville” has brought change, but was it for the better? This change was brought at the expense of some of the core things that made this area great. The sense of family is gone, the slower pace, the old farm culture, the wave of everyone you meet, the helpful neighbors, The everyone knew everyone is long gone. Replaced By heavy traffic, crowded hiking trails, rude people, it all about me and my wants. Gone are the summer evening at the ol speedway , replace by young men in foam suits and foam weapons try to play only God knows what. Gone is some of the areas greatest hunting places replace by huge homes placed on a steep hill side. The leisure summer days at sliding rock or graveyard fields replace with a fight for parking and no ability to move. The new Asheville may be great to some but to those who saw and loved the old one its almost painful. Im starting to understand how the Native Americans felt when there homes were taking from them. My family came here in 1789 but it come to a end in 2014. It will always be home , but as the old saying goes “sometimes you cant go home again”because home is just gone.

    • mg massey

      having looked at this issue from all sides, I can say that OLe BOB and the other gentleman have a point. I also see the side of those with River LINK. Yet, having dealt with the insular attitudes at RIver LInk, I sure do wish that folks would find common ground, agree to disagree and build bridges and not walls. Taking the time to see things through others eyes is always useful. Coming from a Indigenous population that was run out of her, I am the first of my line to be here since the TRail Of Tears. Walking in two worlds being mixed blood, I tend to see all all sides of an issue. IT makes me sad to see folks fail to look for common ground. WE all have a right to exist. Empathy and the ability to look through a situation through the eyes of others is far more useful than knee jerk condemnations from both sides of this debate. Peace be with you all

  8. Susan Hutchinson

    I loved the River District 25 years ago when the remnants of industry could still be felt. It was like traveling through an unintentional museum. I went to the final auctions as industries closed down. I felt the shadow of energy from long gone workers toiling, walked the abandoned wooded floors worn down by decades of use, handled the wrought iron steel hooks that once held carcasses in the slaughterhouse. I explored the stockyards whenever I went to buy my hay. I was a regular at the scrap yards and a customer of the remaining industrial suppliers.
    I love the River District as it is today: teaming with new life and energy, creative commerce side by side with trains, and the river as an honored centerpiece instead of a sewer.
    I am grateful that the River District has found new life. Sometimes change is a good thing.

  9. Karen Cragnolin

    Carrier park is open 365 days a year and is free andv the most utilized park in the system. Race track was open 20 nights a year and cost $20 per person. River is our melting pot everyone lives and uses it from pisgah view to north Asheville nothing elitists about free open to everyone. Thanks

    • Ole Bob

      If you can’t grasp the point those of us who have seen our way of life around the river mocked, pushed away and destroyed are making then it shows just how secure your blinders are. Just because something thing is free doesn’t make it less elitist- parks and greenspaces fit the mold of what the downtown, well heeled crowd of mostly recent arrivals to Asheville want now and wanted then. The loud, uncultured, racetrack that was enjoyed by the low and middle class people who wanted to have a good time and didn’t spend time and political receptions and fundraisers in town wasn’t acceptable to the downtown political class in Asheville, so it had to go.

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