Asheville City Council members waded through a lengthy agenda on May 23. But by the end of the five-hour session, they had given the Civic Center a crutch to stand on, held touchy annexation hearings, unveiled the makings of a new air agency, and approved both a controversial planned community and the city's Strategic Plan for Sustainable Economic Development.
Civic Center Director David Pisha was back in the hot seat, as Council members grudgingly passed a $593,737 budget amendment to bail out the aging venue.
"What's in the budget and what's actually happening is way, way off," said Council member Brian Peterson, still looking for answers as to what went wrong. "Expenses are up, and revenues are down. It just doesn't make sense."
At the previous Council meeting, Pisha had attempted to explain an $886,419 loss on the arena side of the Civic Center. The huge deficit, he revealed, was due to costly electric repairs, unexpected declines in attendance at Asheville Smoke hockey games, and a drop in concerts and conventions held at the arena.
Pisha pointed out that it costs more to maintain the arena for a hockey game than for hosting one- or two-day events. That's why, he said, expenses are rising while the number of events is going down. Many events that came to the arena last year -- such as the Amway convention and a concert by musician George Jones -- either migrated to the new Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C., or simply did not take place this year.
Council member Ed Hay emphasized that the entertainment business is fickle, and that Asheville's arena is not the only one experiencing hard times. Charleston's arena, he noted, hosted 25 events five years ago, but only six this year. "The point is, we are not the only ones," said Hay. "Revenues are down everywhere -- especially in second-tier venues."
At this point in the discussion, Council member Terry Whitmire took the lead, demanding that Pisha provide Council with quarterly financial updates and implement an in-house marketing plan. "I want us to move as quickly as possible," she said.
City Manager Jim Westbrook pointed out that, since the Civic Center employs only one marketing person, an in-house marketing plan might not be feasible. He also noted that the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce is supposed to be contributing the services of another marketing person to the Civic Center, but the city hadn't seen much benefit from that position yet.
"I think that's the problem," Whitmire responded, pointing to the four current vacancies in the venue's promotions office. "We need to know how best to market our Civic Center. If it loses $500,000 again next year, that's enough to pay for [the marketing] position 10 times over."
Agreeing on annexation
For the first time in seven years, Asheville has taken steps toward involuntarily annexing three square miles adjoining the city's existing boundaries. Potentially explosive public hearings on this latest round of annexations turned out to be fairly passive.
Encompassing six separate areas, this coup would bring 819 dwellings into the city, increasing the assessed tax base by $250,287,282. Council members will vote on the annexations on June 13; if passed, they would take effect next summer.
City Planning Director Scott Shuford emphasized that these involuntary annexations constitute only the first phase in the city's new annual-annexation policy. He noted that state laws actually encourage cities to annex, so they can collect lucrative sales and use taxes. "If we don't grow or build roads, we don't get to take advantage of those moneys," he said.
Asheville is obligated to provide the same services -- such as sanitation, water, sewer, street lights, fire and police protection -- to the annexed areas that are available to other city residents, Shuford noted. Council members have often said they don't want to repeat the "botched annexations" of the past, and Hay had previously cautioned, "We want to make sure these annexed areas receive nothing less than the highest levels of city services available."
While the public hearings were relatively tame, not all of the 1,972 new city residents are coming in willingly. Laronda Self told Council that most of her neighbors in the Parkway Vista Townhouses -- located in the 195 acres between Tunnel and Riceville roads -- oppose annexation. She argued that residents of that area already receive the same services as the rest of the city, except for police protection, noting that their taxes are half of what they will be when the annexation takes effect. But Self also conceded that she was "cheating" a bit -- because the city's police are just across the street (the city limit), if anything bad should happen.
Mayor Leni Sitnick told Self that this admission was making Council's job easy. "In fact, we have to be sensitive to the actual taxpayers who are paying for the security you just described," the mayor said, adding, "All the streets that you use to get to your property are part of the city, and you don't pay for that at all."
The biggest prize in this annexation is unquestionably the 1,500 acres around Lake Julian, including the CP&L plant. However, the topography would make it too costly to install sewer lines for the 30 homes clustered there. Instead, the city has opted for closely monitored. no-fee septic service. Francis Briggs, a Lake Julian-area homeowner, revealed that most residents would rather be serviced by the Metropolitan Sewerage District, and -- if they had their druthers -- would choose not to be annexed at all.
Sustainable economic development for Asheville
As they indicated they would back in January, Council members passed into action the Strategic Plan for Sustainable Economic Development on May 23.
The future of Asheville will not likely resemble its past, reported Jack Cecil and Dr. David Kolzow, when they presented the much-anticipated plan. Jobs and income, they posited, will be derived not from new factories, but from "knowledge-based" industries. And such factors as the availability of skilled workers, innovative technologies, and an advanced telecommunications infrastructure will give the city a competitive edge.
"A lot of communities are still chasing smokestacks, not realizing we've moved ahead" said Kolzow, of Lockwood Greene Consulting -- the company hired by the city to produce the plan. "We need to pass along a healthy environment, as well as a healthy economy."
The plan grew out of input from more than 400 citizens. Cecil, a local developer, spearheaded the effort.
Mayor Sitnick has praised the lengthy document for balancing concerns about the economy, the environment and quality-of-life issues. Barbara Field and Charles Worley like the way the plan simultaneously presents Asheville as the economic centerpiece of Western North Carolina and incorporates surrounding areas. Hay thinks strategies incorporated into the plan can be used as instruments to help assess whether the impact of future Council decisions is consistent with the plan.
Cecil presented Council with a proposed 15-member implementation task force -- soon to be expanded to 19 -- and a three-year sunset provision. Whitmire pointed out that only four of the members on the proposed task force are women; she recommended that the remainder of the positions be filled "by women, preferably minorities."
The plan passed on a 6-to-1 vote, with only Peterson dissenting. Peterson's problems with the plan included his assessment that it is not "neighborhood-friendly." He also pointed out that the proposed task force would consist of people who are "very pro-business. There are no average citizens on it." Peterson also had concerns about strategic goals to streamline the development process, whereby Planning and Zoning hearings might more resemble Technical Review Committee proceedings. "It doesn't allow for public input, and the Council wouldn't be accountable," he concluded.
Crowell Farms gets the nod
The whole cast of characters was back, and after two hours of discourse, the drama unfolded the same way -- with Council members unanimously approving the master plan for Crowell Farms, a planned community on the west side of town. (See "Council approves lesser evil," May 3 Xpress.)
On April 26, Council members rezoned 71 acres within the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction to accommodate the Planned Unit Development to be built about a mile from the intersection of Interstate 40 and the Smokey Park Highway. Neighboring residents had vehemently opposed the project, saying it would exacerbate an already-poor traffic situation and wouldn't be in harmony with the surrounding community.
The Planning and Zoning Commission had already approved the master plan for the project, but the neighborhood filed an appeal, essentially voiding that approval until the plan came before Council. Crowell Farms will become the first PUD to be built in Asheville since the city adopted the Unified Development Ordinance. City planners consider PUDs to be at the forefront of implementing "smart growth" concepts. By clustering homes, these developments supposedly reduce the amount of grading needed -- which limits the destruction of the land's natural beauty. PUDs also aim to preserve open space for residents, often featuring a network of trails to promote a sense of community.
A new name in air quality
Local air-pollution control has a new name: the Western North Carolina Air Quality Agency. Spawned from the ashes of the WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency, the organization is the result of an interlocal agreement being fashioned by Asheville and Buncombe County.
Mayor Sitnick unveiled a draft of the new agreement, which would establish an the independent local air agency with an autonomous, decision-making board -- including a citizens' advisory committee. The new agreement is much the same as the one it replaces, with a few exceptions: Air-agency employees will now fall under the auspices of Buncombe County personnel policies for the purposes of administration, compensation and benefits. But the agency's director will still do all the hiring and firing.
Additionally, Sitnick noted that details are being worked out regarding the formation of a separate trust-fund board to invest and administer the hefty fund balance the agency has accrued over the years. The money will be used for education, promoting alternative fuels, and other means of creating clean, safe air, explained Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger.