Attendees at a "downtown summit" this afternoon expressed concern about a variety of issues, including cleanliness, the homeless, affordability, and infrastructure in Asheville's core. The forum was organized by city staff as an effort to gather input.
As of a week ago, as Xpress reported Oct. 14, the event was originally planned as a sit-down in a City Hall conference room between the Asheville Downtown Association, city staff, and Council. Instead, on Oct. 15 staff announced they were moving it to Pack Library and re-christening it a summit, with the public welcome. The last few months have seen concerns about crime, the homeless, and police activity downtown a topic of public debate.
City Manager Gary Jackson, speaking at the beginning of the summit, said its purpose was to open a larger discussion of "the issues and concerns about the vitality of downtown."
"We have a variety of different perspectives, but everybody's here because we know we have issues, we know it's a great city and we know we're not living up to our potential," he said. "We wanted to gather those viewpoints, and get a sense of whether or not there were shared concerns or commonality."
As for the timing — 3:30 p.m. on a Monday — Jackson noted, "We were told we needed to have this during the day to get the maximum input downtown." Staff used their common practice of breaking the audience out into groups, writing down both things they like about downtown and their concerns, before reassembling at the end to compile them.
About 40 people showed up, with the crowd skewing older. Cleanliness came up frequently as a concern, as did safety, and belligerent transients (as opposed to downtown's existing homeless population). Some added nudity, head shops, noise, raucous dogs, and panhandlers to the list of worrisome problems. Others were more concerned about a lack of affordable housing, lingering segregation, and a dearth of adequate services for the poor and homeless.
In the same group, for example, Amy Cantrell, of the homeless service ministry Beloved House, worried that "folks who grew up here are getting pushed out," while another man said that the police should start background checking buskers ("That's an interesting suggestion," said Chief Sustainability Officer Maggie Ullman, who was facilitating the group's discussion.)
As the crowd reassembled, Jackson said the city was already working to solve some of the problems they mentioned, with a more aggressive APD strategy now leading to the arrest of transients "who tear up their citations," the city installing new trash and recycling cans, and more affordable housing coming on The Block and Coxe Avenue.
"This sets a tone," said Jackson, who added that the city was considering having regular input sessions like this for downtown.
"What surprised me is the focus on cleanliness," Sabra nhaRaven, who works with the Asheville Homeless, told Xpress after the forum. "Everyone wants a clean city; I'd be thrilled to see cleanliness improve. But I haven't noticed Asheville being particularly any more dirty than any other city I've been in, so I don't understand the prominence of that concern."
Her chief concerns were "the negative side of beer city" and the alcohol use it promotes while social services to deal with the consequences are facing increasing cuts. She added that she wasn't sure if the forum was an effective way to gather input from those concerned about downtown, "but it doesn't hurt to do it."
But cleanliness was one of the top issues on the agenda for Sally and Jim Kammann.
"It looks like that's a big vote-getter today," she said, adding that she feels there needs to be better maintenance of landscaping downtown.
"We need to figure out a way to move people who work downtown out of downtown parking so we can have enough room for buyers, tourists, and locals," he added, referring to the biggest concern he had that didn't come up in the forum. "There aren't any spaces, it's crazy."
As for whether the forum will help get his concerns addressed, Kammler also has his doubts. "We've been talking about this, and now there's a 2025 plan. Before that it was a 2015 plan and I was here when there was a 2005 plan. You know what? A lot of the same things are in each of those plans."