Downtown Asheville was largely boarded up in 1994 but starting to show signs of life. I had purchased my law office building on Church Street eight years earlier and was starting to see a decrease in uninvited overnight guests who “rested” in my parking lot or occasionally on the office front porch. Thankfully, my office staff witnessed fewer instances of drug dealing, and less evidence of prostitution and other criminal activity in the Church Street area by then.
The city was beginning to take shape and position for the current prosperity we routinely enjoy today. President Clinton was in office, and I was two years out from my first election to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
My good friend Oscar Wong started Highland Brewing Co. as the first post-Prohibition brewery in Asheville in 1994 to very little fanfare or understanding of the ramifications of this pioneer business. Highland’s first kegs rolled out that December, a toast to the beginning of a beer lover’s paradise era, which now provides great employment, business and imbibing possibilities for citizens and visitors alike.
In 1994, City Council continued its ongoing discussions about the Interstate 240 interchange, employed Tim Moffitt to narrow down city manager applicants from 268 candidates to nine, and held ongoing negotiations with Hendersonville over drinking water issues, among many other considerations. Jim Westbrook was selected to succeed Doug Bean as city manager at a salary of $99,000 per year, generating some controversy since the compensation was more than the governor of North Carolina made at the time. Mayor Russ Martin and Council member Barbara Field were the subject of outrage and a rally of 1,300 angry people after they announced support for a city employment policy banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Later in 1994, this clause was removed. Years later, both City Council and the county Board of Commissioners amended their respective employment policies to include anti-discrimination language based on sexual orientation and to recognize domestic partners.
That year, county commissioners helped greet the Tour DuPont professional bike race that ended in City/County Plaza. The county considered joining the “NC Information Highway,” but tabled the notion for several years to permit the state to get the bugs out of the system. Commissioners studied the merger of city and county recreation departments and employed the Institute of Government to finalize a plan to accomplish the merger. Public comment challenged the use of county funds to support economic development. Commissioners reluctantly accepted a petition to bring to a district vote the continuation of a supplemental school tax in Enka. And on Nov. 4, voters abolished this additional funding. Chairman Gene Rainey joined a unanimous vote to approve tire and curbside recycling, a program considered cutting-edge for counties at the time. Commissioners pondered and eventually decided to purchase land in Alexander for a new landfill to succeed the one in Woodfin. Alexander residents expressed outrage that two north Buncombe neighborhoods were being dumped on. Noting the poor condition of the Recreation Park pool, commissioners allocated $1.2 million to replace the aging facility and agreed to consider another pool in the Owen district. The latter was built several years later. Assistant County Manager Wanda Greene helped present a $168 million budget that featured a 73-cent tax rate (currently we have a 60.4 cent rate and a $367 million budget), which included payments for the first of two jail additions over the course of 10 years.
While Asheville and Buncombe County have steadily improved our partnerships, business climate, quality of life, greenways, environmental awareness and equality measures since 1994, many issues from that era remain on our present-day agendas.
David Gantt is a lawyer and the chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. He was first elected to the board in 1996.