- Protection for Pack Square Park?
- Fuel flowing again
More than just a place, downtown Asheville is a brand -- and an economic engine that needs protecting and constant fine-tuning.
That was the gist of a presentation by Kelly Miller, executive director of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, to Council members during their Oct. 21 work session.
At issue, said Miller, are problems that plague most cities but that really stand out in a town like Asheville, which banks on its beauty and special charms to entice visitors, new residents and even businesses. That said, he ticked off a list of big concerns: graffiti, garbage/litter, panhandling, predatory towing, construction and repairs that make the city hard to navigate, and poorly lit areas. And while Miller praised city staff for trying to tackle these issues, he emphasized that many of them are getting worse.
"Graffiti, filth, litter and weeds growing from sidewalks and vacant lots are getting worse," his report states. "Vacant storefronts remain untidy long after tenants have relocated or closed." And panhandling, he added, is not only increasing but getting more aggressive, "which translates into the perception that downtown is becoming increasingly unsafe."
Another key concern is predatory towing, he noted, though the TDA-funded Wayfinding Project may help by directing traffic to public lots. "We receive a fair number of letters from both extremely upset visitors and residents whose autos have been towed," the report notes. "The Chamber is ready to roll up its collective sleeves with other groups to come up with deployable solutions and welcomes your input."
Describing downtown as "a delicate ecosystem," Miller depicted an urgent need for action, saying, "Downtown Asheville, as a stand-alone destination brand, is at a very critical crossroad. A vibrant, clean, safe, graffiti-free downtown offers enormous strategic advantages for business recruitment, positive visitor experiences, and improved quality of life for residents."
Council member Carl Mumpower suggested that the city pull together specially tasked "action groups" to tackle these problems individually, and his colleagues agreed. In order to impart a sense of urgency, they said, those groups should be asked to come up with workable, common-sense solutions within a 30- to 60-day time frame.
But whatever these groups suggest, it'll cost money, warned Council member Holly Jones. She asked Miller whether the city, which is beginning to feel the fallout from the nationwide financial crisis, could count on financial help from the TDA. "We're already looking at a million-dollar shortfall," she noted. "The money's just not there right now."
But the TDA, said Miller, is every bit as hard-pressed as the city, and hotel revenues are declining. A large portion of the agency's funding comes from hotel-occupancy taxes.
"It'll be a hard year for us," predicted Miller, adding, "Knock on wood, we'll have a good October."
Not every idea would necessarily cost large amounts of money, however. One cost-effective strategy for improving downtown is to pinpoint poorly lit areas, which can make both visitors and residents feel unsafe. To this end, Miller urged the city to develop a lighting master plan for assessing and improving lighting citywide.
He also called for better coordination of new construction and infrastructure projects to avoid peak visitation times. Such projects, he noted, make it hard to get around downtown.
"An integrated staging plan," said Miller, "could greatly mitigate the impact of these improvements. Encouraging dialogue on the front end with all affected parties before work begins or is approved could pay huge economic dividends."
Miller also urged downtown retailers to keep longer and more consistent business hours.
Homeless blamed for problems
Some Council members, notably Vice Mayor Jan Davis, seemed to feel that the most pressing issues are those related to the city's homeless population. The problems are especially acute in front of Pack Library and the Civic Center along Haywood Street, and along Patton Avenue near the Western Carolina Rescue Ministries shelter, which is just up the street from Davis' tire store. More and more fellow business owners, he said, are complaining to him about problems ranging from simple loitering and littering to aggressive panhandling and other even more offensive acts.
Davis mentioned a letter he'd recently received from local architect Mike Watson, who complained about "what seems like an endless supply of homeless people that are content to trespass, urinate, defecate, sleep -- all within 10 feet of my front door. I have had to rouse sleeping people from my front porch, clean diarrhea from the steps and install several thousand dollars' worth of steel grate and fence. I have caught people having sex and completing drug deals in the parking lot," Watson's letter stated.
Vic Howard, president and CEO of the Western Carolina Rescue Ministries, said the shelter is seeing increased demand, especially among women and children who have lost their homes. But those who spend the night at the shelter, he pointed out, are not allowed to come and go, meaning many of the panhandlers may be "professionals" rather than shelter clients. And notwithstanding the stereotypes, added Howard, many of the homeless at the Rescue Ministries are not lazy but merely down on their luck and are actively seeking employment. At least 40 percent of shelter residents, however, are mentally ill and unlikely to find meaningful employment, he said.
Howard also noted that the shelter is increasingly requiring those it helps to give back to the community, such as by helping build bus shelters. The nonprofit is also looking into forming groups to help clean up graffiti around town, he said.
Council members asked City Attorney Bob Oast to draft rules designed to protect Pack Square Park from the kind of problem caused when Buncombe County sold a piece of the park to developer Stewart Coleman in 2006 for his proposed Parkside condominium project.
But not everyone on Council was convinced that such rules are needed. The bitter controversy sparked by the sale, argued Mumpower, makes a repeat occurrence unlikely. "That one has burned so many people that to believe it will happen again anytime soon is a stretch," he said.
Oast described a handful of possible approaches to protecting the park that would offer varying levels of "bindingness." Zoning, he noted, could be changed on a whim by either the current or future City Councils. The city could also consider a conveyance (which would need to include some enforcement mechanism) or a dedication (typically used to acquire streets and sidewalks in new subdivisions). The most restrictive option, a conservation easement, is considered permanent, he explained.
Council members instructed Oast to ask county officials which method they would prefer (the city and county jointly own the park). They also asked him to talk to the Pack Square Conservancy, the nonprofit that has raised much of the money and is overseeing the park's renovation.
Fuel for thought
Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson gave a brief update on the gas situation. City government, he said, is now operating at level one of its fuel-conservation plan. At that level, Richardson explained, no police, fire-and-rescue, sanitation or transit services would be interrupted. Although gas is now available, the city hasn't fully recovered from the effects of the recent shortage, and the fire chief has not yet recommended discontinuing conservation efforts, he said.
Meanwhile, the average consumer is faring better than the city, said Richardson. After weeks of long lines and frayed nerves, he reported, "The public is experiencing no issues with the availability of fuel." The retail sector, he added, is in "great shape," and gas prices are falling.
Hal L. Millard can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 151, or at email@example.com.