A recent Mountain Xpress article (“Realizing the Full Value of Our Rivers and Greenspaces,” Sept. 26) by my good friend Karen Cragnolin, the brilliant visionary and advocate who can proudly take credit for the unbelievable renaissance in the River District and who is a newly minted grandmother of the most beautiful grandchild in the world, cries out for vigorous rebuttal on my part. I can only surmise that Karen could possibly be suffering from a malady of diminished memory endemic to many of us who have “grand” attached to our name.
To begin with, as a brilliant writer and renowned author and wordsman, I would never use a metaphor such as Humpty Dumpty to express the issues with river redevelopment, for fear of getting egg on my face. Karen paints me as the only naysayer in RiverLink’s drive to redevelop the river zone. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a longtime investor and developer of many river properties, along with the many other property owners and businesspeople along the riverfront, it was in our best interest to see the area improve and prosper.
The problem was that the RiverLink movement, primarily spearheaded by elitist outsiders with no financial skin in the game, decided they were going to dictate to those of us who owned property and worked hard to feed our families just what we could do with our property. They started with something they called a “charrette” where people wallowed on the floor and drew pictures and plans overlaid on our property with Ferris wheels, boat landings, parks, bike paths, etc. They received copious television and newspaper press and, frankly, scared hell out of all of the river property owners.
They denigrated the many recyclers — including auto wreckers, scrapyards, salvage yards and wastepaper recyclers who had served the community for decades — by calling them, as Karen did in her article, “junkyards” unworthy of existence and unwelcome. They decided they had to go but had no suggestion as to in which other neighborhoods these businesses would be welcome.
The eminent Dr. Milton Ready came down from his ivory tower at UNC Asheville to honor us with his snarky remark implying that we were Third Worlders by labeling the area “Bangladesh.” Is it any wonder that they didn’t receive our overwhelming support to put us all out of business?
They had no understanding of the riverfront or of the culture of the river-business community and its many employees. The owners came to me in desperation, as I was one of the larger property owners and had some political experience in my first prestigious lobbying organization, where I served as president of the Buncombe County Garbage Haulers. I was anointed president for life of the “River Rats,” representing property owners in the French Broad and Swannanoa basin. We finally began to get some grudging respect both from RiverLink and City Council, and we indeed tried our best to cooperate for the good of all the stakeholders.
Among other things, I tried to keep Karen from walking into minefields. I warned her that the Earle Chesterfield feed mill and the cotton mill, which RiverLink coveted, were extremely dangerous buildings. They were right across the street from my office and were offered for sale at, excuse the expression, “fire-sale prices.” If they had been such a good deal, one of us river-property investors would have purchased them. Much like the recently demolished icehouse on Riverside, the cost of bringing the existing buildings up to code was prohibitive.
The most recent owners of the cotton mill had let the fire sprinkler system freeze up in a wooden building, where the wooden floors were soaked with cotton seed oil, and the feed mill had feed and fertilizer dust all over the walls and rafters — a disaster waiting to happen.
I disagree with the comfortable conspiracy theory that the great fire that destroyed these buildings was an act of arson. Every night as I drove home from work, I could see a bunch of hippies sitting on the front dock of the feed mill smoking dope and skipping rope, and I am convinced that a careless cigarette or joint easily started the huge conflagration that destroyed all of the feed mill and most of the cotton mill.
I also remind Karen that the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of the Asheville Motor Speedway were costly to RiverLink and the county. I want to emphatically state that I am not a racing fan and have only been to one race in my lifetime, and that was at the speedway. I am cognizant of the fact that auto racing started in these hills and has been an important part of our mountain and Southern culture, providing inexpensive entertainment and thrills for many who found it a compelling part of their lives.
I am not unmindful that the noise from the track was a nuisance and that the Biltmore company did not want to entertain guests at its new hotel with this noise. I also acknowledge that it might have been time for the track to be closed, but the cavalier disregard for the fans, many of whom were low-income, is inexcusable. It was done in the dark of night, with Mayor Leni Sitnick and other conspirators, and was another example of economic and political bullying of the great unwashed by a certain segment of our community.
Maybe things would not have turned out differently, as the track was in financial trouble, but at least a valiant effort should have been made to relocate it. You can bet that if the Art Museum is displaced, the same leadership will find a new home before it is shut down.
I warned Karen that this action would cause the defeat of a major bond issue that was proposed for city and county parks and recreation, and sure enough, people who would have never even bothered to vote turned out in droves in retaliation against RiverLink. This animosity exists in the community to this day.
When Karen got $2 million from FEMA to buy up riverfront buildings to improve the flood zone, I was the only one who sold out — yes, the ugly blue building across the street from the cotton mill, and at a below-market price. I did my best to try to convince two other property owners who were approached to sell their property and showed them how they could benefit. Due to the ineptness of the acquisition team at the city of Asheville that was responsible for the negotiations, these property owners were spooked, and the city ended up having to return more than half the money
Karen’s reference to Jerry’s stinking rendering plant emphasizes her lack of knowledge of the history of river properties. I purchased that property from a national firm after it had been closed down for several years for salvage and a tear-down. I subsequently built a new building on the property, over the objection of Karen and Jean Webb, which is now a children’s fitness center called Asheville Community Movement. (See my commentary, “Fighting City Hall,” Sept. 11, 2014, Xpress.)
I worked with Doug Wilson, president of RiverLink, in an attempt to obtain right-of-way donations from the river-property owners to build a greenway along the bank of the French Broad from Amboy Bridge to Broadway. I think this failed for lack of funding.
I take pride in the most successful joint effort between Karen and myself, won in a hard-fought battle with Asheville to establish a mixed-use zoning district under the UDO allowing everything from industrial to residential use with the exception of LULUs (large undesirable land uses, such as asphalt plants and meat-packing houses). Without this designation, we would not have the new apartment buildings going up on the Dave Steel property or the New Belgium brewery, and many other smaller developments and remodels in the River Arts District.
If Humpty Dumpty did in fact fall while watching the race between the tortoise and the hare, I am sure he will end up in a delicious, off-the-wall turtle-rabbit omelet.