A tense July 17 public-input session on the controversial downtown business improvement district underscored deep divisions among residents over the proposal.
About 60 people, ranging from condo owners to the homeless, showed up at the Asheville Civic Center ballroom to weigh in on the idea of establishing an independent nonprofit to provide extra services downtown, funded by a special tax district.
City Council delayed a vote on the contentious proposal June 12, citing concerns about the BID board’s accountability and the need for more clarity on the role of the proposed "ambassadors," among other issues. City staff and the interim BID board subsequently scheduled the informal gathering to solicit opinions on those issues.
Four tables were set up at the meeting, each focusing on one key theme: board representation, board selection, the ambassadors’ role and the specific services the BID would provide. There was no formal mechanism for opposing the BID outright. People moved from table to table, making written suggestions and placing stickers next to favored items on big lists. Some also spoke with Council members, staff and BID board members.
"I started out adamantly against it because I felt it was fairly redundant," Asheville resident Jeff McLarty told Xpress, adding, "I think I've changed to ambivalent." He said he worries that the BID would divide downtown from the rest of the city and make some people feel unwelcome.
Downtown resident Buck Bragg, however, had no ambivalence whatsoever. "We experience the issues with cleanliness and safety every day,” he said. “What are the options to deal with them? Our takeaway is that the BID is the best option."
Longtime Asheville resident Tracy Hyorth said she was involved in similar efforts in the 1980s that had stronger city backing. Now, however, she's concerned that a particular group of downtown power brokers ("the same [ones who] come in Council time and time again") is behind the BID push. She feels information kiosks would be more helpful to visitors than the proposed ambassadors, who might waste valuable police resources calling law enforcement over minor issues.
Local activist Matthew Burd said existing nonprofits could handle cleaning and street sweeping, which he called the BID's only beneficial elements, at lower cost. Safety and security, he maintained, are the Police Department’s job.
City resident Faith Rhyne believes the BID would "reinforce the economic and cultural segregation we already have downtown. ... It's not representative of the surrounding communities; it's going to benefit a few commercial interests."
Some critics felt the whole public-input process was slanted toward BID proponents. One said he'd tried unsuccessfully to get a fifth table representing the opposition's views.
"We feel so unheard, so unrepresented," downtown resident Carol Brothers told Council member Chris Pelly, who advised the opposition to organize.
Firestorm Cafe worker/owner Sye agreed, saying, "It seems incredibly stacked. It's all under the presumption that the BID will pass. It feels a little bit like a sham that we've been invited to a public forum, then asked how we want something to look … instead of being asked if we want it here at all."
Council member Marc Hunt said his impression was that most downtown residents oppose the BID while most business owners support it. Pelly told some attendees that he felt support and opposition "ran about 50-50."
Downtown resident Ann Snell said her car has been broken into twice recently; she believes a BID is necessary to improve the area. "I think downtown is deteriorating; I'm very worried about it," she told Xpress, asserting, "People who don't own property downtown shouldn't be on the BID board."
Snell added that she understands opponents’ concerns, saying some property owners should be exempted from the BID tax.
Pelly later told Xpress that he’d wanted to explore a two-tier tax system for the BID, with residents paying less, but this would violate state law.
Midway through the meeting, about 15 homeless people showed up wearing ambassador sashes. Some said local political operative Michael Muller had offered them packs of cigarettes in exchange for doing this. Others, however, said they wanted to highlight the role the homeless can and do play in helping improve downtown. One man, Midnight, said he's organized a group to pick up trash near the A-HOPE shelter, adding that the homeless should not be excluded from downtown.
"I was involved in Occupy Asheville last year, and it made me feel like I needed to be part of the community and help others," he explained. "We're kind of a tight-knit group: We have eyes on the street; we see what's going on. We have to live in this environment too."
Council will reconsider a revised BID proposal in late September.
Below, we have curated Twitter dispatches by Xpress Senior Staff Reporter David Forbes.
11:54 a.m. RT @mxnews: City seeks input on downtown Asheville BID at tonight's meeting http://t.co/IvHbKEcz
3:55 p.m. mxnews Towns, fire chiefs oppose Asheville BID due to loss of sales tax revenue http://t.co/cLG2I73w
5:13 p.m. mtg about to start in Civic Center. City staff setting up tables focusing on Board seats, Board selection, Ambassadors, BID Services
5:14 p.m. A number of my neighbors asked me about issue/mtg. Encouraged them to attend, but most are working tonight.
5:19 p.m. If you can't make tonight's meeting, here's how to let Council know your opinion http://t.co/JMnwPdy2
5:32 p.m. Council members Marc Hunt and Chris Pelly are here
5:52 p.m. Avl resident Jeff McLarty: Gone from ardently opposed to to ambiguous, still concerned will divide downtown from rest of city.
5:54 p.m. Downtown resident Buck Bragg: See problems every day w litter, safety. best way to solve.
5:55 p.m. Matthew Burd: Only beneficial things offers (like cleaning) could be better handled by local non-profits like Asheville Greenworks.
5:56 p.m. Faith Rhyne: will "reinforce existing economic/cultural segregation" in downtown Asheville.
5:59 p.m. Tracy Hyorth: Involved in similiar proposals to in '80s, city more involved then, now seems more just one group pressing this.
6:00 p.m. About 15 local homeless, protesters have entered wearing Ambassador sashes
6:00 p.m. Number of ppl have concerns over role of "ambassadors," esp security function
6:03 p.m. One of the homeless, Bro Blu: Wearing sashes because more sections of community need to be involved in this issue
6:29 p.m. Group of downtown residents who oppose gathered around Council mem Chris Pelly, say they feel unrepresented, unheard in process
6:35 p.m. Some of the residents say tried to get table at for opposition, feel process slanted. Pelly advises them to get organized
6:36 p.m. Pelly to Xpress: Understand concerns of residents about, may look at 2-tier tax (more for biz, less for residents)
6:42 p.m. Downtown resident Ann Snell: Car broken into twice recently, "downtown is deteriorating" need, but understand tax concerns.
6:43 p.m. Libertie Valance, Firestorm worker/owner: Feel like mtg is about how we'd like to look, rather than input about if one shld exist.
6:44 p.m. Sye, Firestorm worker/owner: This meeting "seems incredibly stacked" in favor of, more geared to input about details.
6:45 p.m. Midnight, one of the homeless protesters who showed up: Started group to pick up trash near AHOPE. Many of us care about area
6:50 p.m. Pelly: Found out state law doesn't allow two-tier tax for, tax increase has to be same across the board.
6:56 p.m. Official options for ambassador duties on left, additions from attendees on right http://t.co/XWXqDYGY
6:59 p.m. Of the unofficial options for ambassador roles, "none" got the most votes (37).
6:59 p.m. Attendees to meeting voting for ambassador duties w stickers.Of the official options, reporting cleaning needs has most (17).
7:02 p.m. Crowd dying down at meeting. About 60 people here at height, though that included a fair number of staff, BID board
7:14 p.m. Council mem Marc Hunt talking w some attendees, telling them he's heard more downtown residents against, more biz owners for
7:21 p.m. meeting wrapping up.
8:44 p.m. RT @mxnews: Differing views at downtown Asheville BID meeting http://t.co/fPRk5yWl
8:44 p.m. mxnews Differing views at downtown Asheville BID meeting http://t.co/xNJCSU20