A Jan. 12 public-input session gave Asheville staffers more than they'd bargained for when some 275 people turned up at the Randolph Learning Center on Montford Avenue -- enough to cause a line outside the front door.
The meeting, announced only a week earlier, invited city residents to share their concerns with City Council in anticipation of Council members' upcoming retreat and subsequent budget process. And as more and more people poured into the center's gymnasium, the city ran out of folding metal chairs and had to add more focus groups to accommodate the overflow.
Standing at the lectern, Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson conceded, "I'm a bit overwhelmed at the amount of community involvement." But he added, "Tonight, your input is going to be very critical to us."
Mayor Terry Bellamy, who had spoken of changes ahead at her inauguration last month, emphasized that this Council is poised to alter the tenor of city leadership.
"The next four years are our greatest opportunity to shape our future," Bellamy declared, before sending the crowd off into small working groups.
One might have expected the results from the dozen or so groups to vary widely. But as staff members wielding magic markers and poster-sized note pads began writing down their respective groups' priorities and suggested strategies for achieving those goals, common trends emerged.
Perennial concerns such as housing, development, homelessness, business, law enforcement and children came to the forefront as similar voices aired their feelings about the state of their city and which way they want to see it turn.
"I would like to see some lasting [development] guidelines -- ones that outlast one Council," declared Ed Taylor, who later presented his group's results to a reconvened gymnasium assembly.
"The whole feeling of downtown feels on the brink of changing," one woman told her group. Others nodded in agreement, while still more spoke about energy conservation, sustainable businesses and the city's enforcement of its own codes.
Veronika Gunter, who also presented for her group, told Xpress that she was encouraged to see Council taking an interest in public opinion. But she added that Council members need to consider the positions on which they were elected.
"They used the best system they could use to get the information," she said about the meeting, adding, "I do not think it can be a laundry list of issues. They need to exercise their leadership."
Kathie Lack told Xpress that she, too, was pleased with the new Council's attempt to glean community input. But she also emphasized that the turnout did not represent the entire city, and that more such meetings would have to be held to get a true cross section of public opinion. "It was shifted to one side more than the city is," said Lack.
Those present, however, seemed to agree on many key issues, registering their approval with applause as representatives reporting on the small-group sessions mentioned select, hot-button issues. Increased citizen oversight of local government, police involvement in neighborhoods, restrictions on the transport of nuclear materials through the region, a living wage, affordable housing and "No more Wal-Marts!" all drew enthusiastic response from the crowd. They even had some energy left over for City Council and staff, who gained standing ovations for their efforts.
Faced with such enthusiasm, Bellamy urged city residents not to be fair-weather friends, saying, "Don't shoot us down if we don't vote the way you would like." But the new mayor went on to extend an olive branch toward the warring factions that have characterized the city's political climate in recent years.
"I heard someone say, 'There are two Americas,' and that's a reality. But I want there to be one Asheville," Bellamy proclaimed, prompting still more applause.
It remains to be seen what City Council does with this input. City leaders have scheduled a retreat for Friday, Jan. 20, to spell out their priorities for the coming year.