In early April, Wedge Brewing Company owner Tim Schaller took to the company's official Twitter account, where he criticized House Bill 488, a mandated transfer of Asheville’s water system to the Metropolitan Sewerage District: “The merger … wasn’t requested but it’s being forced down our throats.” His later tweets attacked “Raleigh antics” in general and announced support for the campaigns of Asheville City Council members who have been equally critical of the General Assembly.
"Making it questionable what the water situation will be five years from now is not a wise move,” he says, explaining the tweets.
Schaller’s outburst sparked reactions from praise to calls to boycott his business, but it hints at a mix of concerns local business owners have about the barrage of controversial legislation coming out of the state capitol — and the uncertainty it poses for business owners. Love Raleigh's actions or hate them, the more than 1,700 bills North Carolina legislators filed this session present potentially sweeping changes in everything from water to agriculture to taxation. That's spurred many business owners — and the organizations that represent them — to adopt a "wait and see" approach. Some hesitate to talk about the issues until a clearer picture emerges. The outspoken Schaller notes, “I've already gotten some bounce-back about how far you should stick your neck out as a business on these topics.”
But he says, “I didn't like [Rep. Tim] Moffitt's proposals.” The south Buncombe Republican sponsored HB 488, which has passed both chambers of the General Assembly and awaits Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature. “Obviously water is really important for beer,” says Schaller. “I don't think we'd have New Belgium or Sierra Nevada here without the water,” he continues. “I think that legislation isn't necessary. It's bad for business."
But the water bill is one of many. “There's so many bills going through there now it's hard to keep up with everything,” says Mike Plemmons, director of the Council of Independent Business Owners.
Looking for the common good
Jennifer Lapidus, who owns local flour mill Carolina Ground, wonders what legislators will do with state programs for finding new strains of wheat and grain. Those public initiatives have served as an important linchpin in the area's rapidly growing agricultural industry and have demonstrated a Lincoln-esque “ethos of our government [for] the common good,” she argues.
But a combination of federal cuts and proposed state legislation, Lapidus says, indicate politicians’ skeptical attitude toward education and research and an apparent philosophy that “private companies will take care of us." Such approaches leave the fate of local farmers hazy at best and could also hamper other local businesses, she argues.
“We [could] lose the support local growers have. ... These programs operate for the public good, not for the coffers of some company,” Lapidus says. “We need to have universities that will work with our farmers. Now these things keep getting chipped away.”
A federal proposal may also move a cost-sharing program for organic food businesses to state control, where, Lapidus fears, it will find few friends.
There's also the publicity factor, she points out, voicing concern that proposals like the short-lived resolution about creating an official state religion may hurt North Carolina's national profile. “It's really embarrassing,” she says. “Asheville's No. 1 industry is tourism. Even the market for our flour isn't just local. We're not as affected by it as a restaurant is, but our whole local economy is tied to the arts and tourism.”
Correcting the course
Some business owners see it differently. Mac Swicegood, an appraiser and a founding member of CIBO, says the Legislature has done some good work so far. He describes the water proposal, for example, as correcting a legacy of mistakes on the city's end. The mandated transfer gets the water system “back to just being a utility,” says Swicegood. He links the city's longstanding refusal to allow commercial logging in its watershed is further evidence of poor management. “Everybody in Buncombe County is subsidizing the loss of those 20,000 acres and the loss of that timber value.”
The city's use of taxpayer funds for parks and greenways also frustrates him. “You need to look at providing the basic services. … City Council has mismanaged the way they spend your money.” Now the General Assembly is setting things to rights, he says.
Beyond what he describes as the Legislature correcting the city's errors, however, Swicegood has an eye on other state legislation. He mentions stalled plans to widen Interstate 26 through town and redesign the interchange at the Jeff Bowen Bridge, and says he hopes that the “community will finally wake up and see the value of an interstate system,” and embrace those plans. The I-26 connector will fuel an economy boom, Swicegood asserts. But construction has been delayed for years due to lack of state funding and local disagreements over which proposal to build, how neighborhoods will be affect and how many homes will be lost.
Swicegood adds that he’s wary of a proposed tax overhaul that includes applying new sales taxes on services, such as the appraisal business. “I'd rather see them better spend the money they already get,” he says. “I'm still going to have to wait to see how that plays out.”
Wait and see
“We're waiting to see what's going to happen,” says Jeff Joyce, the chamber's government-relations manager. “We want to see no undue burden placed on one specific industry. Before we approve something, we'd want to see exactly how it came out.”
The chamber has already supported some legislation coming out of Raleigh, even when it was controversial, such as changes that cut unemployment benefits but gave businesses a break. “We were really happy to see unemployment insurance reformed — that really took a weight off business' back,” Joyce says. “A lot of our members let us know they were pleased about that.”
Joyce also mentions that Chamber members were glad to see a proposed repeal of renewable energy standards falter in committee in the House (though it passed committee review in the Senate). And members remain concerned about rollbacks in environmental regulation. “We want to make sure we're protecting the resources the Asheville brand is based on, ensuring our mountains are protected,” he says. “We want to take care of our natural resources. Green energy and green business are a major priority here.”
But when it comes to the water system, Chamber leaders decided to “stay out of it,” says Joyce.
“We tried to wade into it in 2004, and it was super-polarizing,” he explains. “We really haven't heard much from our members. I think people have had an opportunity to express their opinion through the city.” (In a nonbinding referendum, Asheville residents voted by a heavy margin to voice opposition to HB 488.)
As for other pending state legislation, "predictability is our No. 1 goal,” says Joyce. Business owners and leaders want to know what they’re dealing with, he explains, but “there [are] thousands of bills that have been introduced; we're just trying to keep an eye on everything.”
Meanwhile, CIBO members have supported state legislation abolishing the city of Asheville and Weaverville's extra-territorial jurisdiction. The organization is monitoring the battle over the water legislation, but hasn't taken a position, says Plemmons. “Some of the reforms could be more business-friendly, but we'll have to see how it turns out,” he says.
“It's a question mark; I think that's where everyone is.”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137 or at email@example.com.