- City jumps on board 51 Biltmore project
- Fireworks planned to gin up restaurant patronage
- Living wage not ready for prime time
- Police chief debriefs after Palin rally
It's hard to find a conversation these days that doesn't somehow reflect the current national economic climate. The trend held true for the Asheville City Council's Oct. 28 formal session. Many items on the evening's extensive agenda tapped into anxieties about the future of business, real estate and finances in general. And we're not just talking about an excruciatingly detailed report on the city's options for issuing bonds to fund capital improvements, or the now-regular update on the city's fuel supply (it's back to normal, by the way).
The city's quest for a new Biltmore Avenue parking garage highlighted at least two aspects of the economic situation here in Asheville, with a Council member warning against getting involved in a long-term construction plan and downtown-restaurant owners pleading with Council to get a move on.
The 437-space underground deck will constitute Asheville's contribution to a three-way partnership that also includes Public Interest Projects and McKibbon Hotel Management (see "Hotel It on the Mountain," Oct. 22 Xpress). The project first appeared before Council Oct. 14, when McKibbon and PIP asked for a conditional zoning of the target property. Approved 6-0, it will allow construction of a seven-story hotel on the site, which is currently occupied by surface parking and the Hot Dog King restaurant. In phase two, Public Interest Projects (which owns the parking lot and has an option on the restaurant property) plans to develop work-force housing on the Lexington Avenue side.
First, however, the city has to build the underground deck. Transportation and Engineering Director Cathy Ball told Council that the cost to the city would be $16.9 million, including design, construction and the acquisition of subterranean rights from PIP.
Economic Development Director Sam Powers said the deck/hotel project would have a positive economic impact on downtown, providing 405 jobs during construction and an estimated 118 permanent jobs.
PIP President Pat Whalen pointed to a shortage of parking on that part of Biltmore, noting that the city's past investments in parking in the Haywood Street area can be credited with breathing new life into the retail and restaurant scene there. But Council member Carl Mumpower reiterated fears he'd aired during the project's first appearance before Council, saying the risk of the development failing and the uncertainty concerning construction costs should give the city pause.
"This is a whole new world now," said Mumpower. "I don't have a crystal ball, but we're about to obligate the city for $17 million plus, and it's scary."
Council member Robin Cape, however, took a different tack, arguing that avoiding all investment actually fuels economic decline. The answer, she said, is to be diligent about where to invest. "What we're seeing in the economy is not about good investments gone wrong," she observed. "If we all pulled our money out of the bank because we're afraid it's going to collapse, we'd cause a collapse. If we all run away afraid, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Cape also noted that the need for more parking downtown is a frequent topic both on Council and around town. "People are constantly asking for more parking," she said. "This is what the community wants and expects from us."
Meanwhile, City Attorney Bob Oast tried to quell Mumpower's anxiety, saying the discussions with the other partners have been going on over the past two years. "The main thing you have to be careful of is who you do business with," said Oast. "We've been working with these folks for a while; we think they are good to do this."
Mayor Terry Bellamy said she would support the agreement, but she wanted assurances that construction would not cause traffic problems, particularly given that the 23-story Ellington hotel-and-condo tower is slated to be under construction at the same time. "I do want to hire locally," the mayor added.
Members of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association turned out in force to support the deck, but several also raised another issue: asking Council to formalize the "unwritten rule" of keeping chain restaurants and retail out of downtown. And after the 51 Biltmore agreement had been approved 6-1 with Mumpower opposed, Cape wanted to return to that topic, saying other cities have tried similar ordinances but found themselves mired in legal battles.
Oast said he'd been following those cases, which are still working their way through the legal system.
Council's vote will trigger a feasibility study of the parking-deck site, with construction slated to begin in 2010.
If parking is good for downtown restaurants, how about fireworks? Can they help fill seats in Asheville's eateries? The Grove Park Inn is betting $40,000 on the idea. Hotel representatives handed over a check in that amount to fund what they're calling the Seasonal Sizzle Celebration.
The idea is to set off evening fireworks in downtown Asheville during the first three Saturdays in December. It's generally a slow time of year for restaurants, and the current financial crunch has left many folks leery of spending money out on the town.
"We are here because of a fear of going out of business. We are talking about people losing their jobs, which is something that is more scary," said AIR President Michel Baudouin. "At its heart, the plan is about keeping business alive," said Baudouin, who owns Bouchon, a Lexington Avenue bistro.
Asheville resident Isaac Cole, a former restaurant owner, supported the idea.
"I remember looking out my restaurant window and looking for customers," he said. "They didn't come, and I went out of business." If that happens to more restaurants, he said, "People are going to be very, very depressed."
The only hesitation came from Mumpower, who wasn't convinced that the city wouldn't end up having to kick in additional money. City Manager Gary Jackson, however, pledged to plan the events within the $40,000 budget, including an allowance for fire and police overtime.
Cape, meanwhile, dismissed Mumpower's comments, saying she was confident the shows could be done for that amount. She also emphasized the benefits they would bring, arguing, "It's not just for tourists; it's about bringing us together as a community."
Turn the wage
The windows of many downtown restaurants display stickers endorsing the Asheville-Buncombe Living Wage Campaign, which is urging businesses to pay workers an hourly wage sufficient to cover the cost of living in Asheville. (The number is adjusted frequently to reflect changes in the cost of living, but so far, it has fluctuated around $11 an hour.)
Meanwhile, a city task force has been exploring the extent to which Asheville could support such a plan. Council has already adopted a policy of paying city employees a living wage (see Asheville City Council, May 30, 2007 Xpress). The move was largely symbolic, as the city was already paying its workers that much.
Now, however, there's talk of requiring outside contractors to follow suit. but that causes problems, task-force member Brenda Mills explained, because state law stipulates that contracts must go to the "lowest responsible" bidder. But the law applies only to contracts involving more than $30,000, she said, and the smaller contracts typically involve low-wage jobs such as janitorial services and mowing -- precisely those workers who could most use a boost. Larger contracts, noted Mills, are often for such services as architectural design, where a living-wage requirement would be moot.
The discussion soon hit a roadblock, however, due to the lack of a critical piece of information: how much a living-wage requirement for contractors would actually cost the city. To arrive at such a figure, every contract would have to be broken down individually, noted Mills. And if the city wanted to implement such a policy and keep the bidding process open to smaller, less prosperous companies, she said, it would have to be prepared to pick up the tab for the difference -- which could spark some resistance if the measure comes up for a vote.
In the wake of Palin
Although the meeting was already running late, an extra item was tacked onto the "other business" portion of the agenda: a report by Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan on his department's involvement in the Oct. 26 Sarah Palin rally at the Asheville Civic Center.
Mumpower requested the briefing, saying he'd received complaints about the department's crowd-control measures. Hogan pointed out that although the rally attracted some 10,000 people plus an unknown number of demonstrators, there were no arrests or reports of physical confrontations. This despite the short notice -- the city had only two days to prepare for Palin's arrival, compared with a week or more for other recent rallies -- and a shortage of both volunteers and security scanners on the part of the Republican organizers.
But some who attended the rally may not have been prepared for Asheville's enthusiastic and distinctive forms of protest and assorted theatrics, noted Hogan. To an outsider, he conceded, it might seem that the department was dropping the ball, but he assured Council that this wasn't the case. "It's not that we're jaded; it's just that we're used to this in Asheville," he explained. "We deal with this all the time," he said, adding that all of the behavior his department witnessed was "constitutional." It might be a good policy, the chief suggested, to warn incoming political rallies about what to expect when they come to town -- such as the annual zombie walk, which passed right by the Civic Center during the Palin rally.