A regional economic initiative presented at the Asheville City Council's Jan. 10 formal session drew cautious interest from Council members. But they also weighed in with misgivings about the project's goals, structure -- and yet-to-be-determined cost.
The Hub Project, promoted by the nonprofit Institute at Biltmore, is intended to stimulate economic development in the region. The plan is an expansive attempt to weave together public, private and nonprofit resources to address a host of economic targets, including industry, high-tech businesses, health care and tourism.
The Institute at Biltmore, a local think tank, has put together a roughly two-dozen-member Hub Project working group that includes local developer Jack Cecil (who serves on the institute's board), former Asheville Mayor Charles Worley, Buncombe County Commissioner David Young, Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Rick Lutovsky and AdvantageWest Senior Vice President for Business Development Rick Carleton, among others.
A steering committee also put together by the institute is compiling input from potential key players, including the city and Buncombe County, to determine their respective levels of involvement.
Sam Powers, director of the city's recently created Office of Economic Development, ran though a PowerPoint presentation outlining the Hub Project's goals and asking Council members for feedback he could pass on to the steering committee.
The first red flag was the city's limited representation on a proposed 35-member authority. Some on Council felt the proposed two seats are not enough, arguing that Asheville is the region's primary economic focal point and therefore should have more of a presence on the authority.
"We're the 100-pound gorilla, and we're coming late to the party," said Council member Jan Davis. "This is also a small representation by Asheville."
"We need to feel like we are part of it," he added later. City staff voiced the same concern in their report to Council, pointing out that 60 percent of the economic projects proposed in the plan would be within the city limits.
But Council member Carl Mumpower argued that two city representatives could be enough "if you have the right people."
Council member Robin Cape, meanwhile, noted that the representation was meager or nonexistent for other local players as well. "I see two seats for Mission [Hospitals], but I don't see the seats for alternative medicine," she said.
Powers told Xpress that staff wants to gauge the extent of Council members' interest in the program and, through their comments, determine the level of involvement and leadership the city wants, especially in light of the economic-development initiatives already under way. The resulting report, he said, will pass through Asheville's Economic Development Advisory Committee before making its way to County Manager Wanda Greene, the county's de facto liaison for the program. Powers added that in his view, the project is still in its infancy and subject to considerable change.
Davis, who serves on the Civic Center Task Force, also wondered why the ailing facility wasn't mentioned. And Cape said that Asheville's emerging "creative class" needs to be considered.
"What we need to recognize in the branding of Asheville is that Asheville already has a brand," she observed. "We have a great creative class that has not been brought to the table." According to staff reports, it isn't clear how much money the city would be asked to invest in the project.
City Manager Gary Jackson pointed out that the 2005-06 budget allocates $140,000 to outside agencies such as the Chamber of Commerce for economic development. At this point, the city hasn't committed any money to the Hub Project. On Oct. 4, Hub advocates told the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners that the county was simply being asked to redirect the money it is already spending; the commissioners subsequently endorsed the project.
But that didn't stop Council member Brownie Newman from worrying that the broad-based program would simply swallow up the city's money. "Where's the focus?" he asked. "We don't have a lot of resources to bring to the table. I'm not sure I'm sold on being actively involved in this."
In the end, however, Council members voted unanimously to support the Hub plan, while planning to submit a list of their concerns to city staff.
Asked about the city's position later, Powers said it amounts to a willingness to explore a possible role in the program.
Council granted a delay to the applicants for a conditional rezoning at the intersection of Oak Park Road and Skyview Place that would allow for two new duplexes and three new single-family homes.
Former City Planner Gerald Green, representing applicants Alan and Susan Laibson, requested the delay, saying a protest petition had been filed just days before the Council meeting.
"We would like the opportunity to work with the neighbors," said Green.
Attorney Patsy Brison, representing some of the neighboring residents, objected to the continuance, saying the residents had taken the time to show up for the scheduled public hearing. She also pointed out that the issue had already been continued once before.
"They have had many months to work with the neighborhood," noted Brison.
Newman pointed out that the developers' plan had been changed since its last appearance before Council, saying he would like to allow time for people to see the latest version. And Mumpower noted that the late-breaking protest petition -- which, under state law, will require a supermajority (6-1) vote for the rezoning to be approved -- was itself sufficient reason for delaying the matter.
The conditional rezoning was postponed until Feb. 14 on a 6-1 vote, with Council member Bryan Freeborn opposed.
Council did approve the initial zoning of several recently annexed properties. And though they unanimously assigned single-family residential zoning to an area known as Grove Park Cove without discussion, Council members were more cautious in considering two lots adjacent to the Southridge Shopping Center off Airport Road.
Some were concerned about the requested "highway business district" designation, which allows for "big-box" developments such as the nearby Target and Lowe's stores. But developer Bob Stoltz assured Council that the intended use for the site is a full-service restaurant, and that plus the relatively small size of the parcel (less than two acres) helped ease those concerns.
The zoning request passed unanimously.
The city's Water Resources Department will soon move into the digital age with a new, computerized maintenance system. Among other things, it will enable the department to map repairs to city water lines.
"I see this as very critical to where we want to go," said Interim Water Resources Director David Hanks. The technology will allow repair crews to work more efficiently and thus help stem the department's rising costs, he said.
But the new system's steep price tag -- $476,307 -- didn't sit well with Mumpower.
"I have a personal difficulty with this amount of money at a time when we are in legal jeopardy," he said, referring to the city's pending lawsuit against the state over the dissolved Water Agreement and the General Assembly's passage of Sullivan II and III, which restrict the city's power to charge customers outside the city limits more for water.
The money, responded Hanks, would come from a special fund allocated for long-term capital improvements to the water system.
Jackson said the cost had made him uncomfortable at first, but he believes the new technology is needed to bring Asheville's water system up to date. Although it won't reduce the amount of work that needs to be done, it will increase efficiency.
"The goal here is not to do less maintenance -- it is to do more," noted Jackson. Both the measure and a subsequent budget amendment passed on 5-2 votes, with Mumpower and Cape opposed.