City - County Gov.Leslee Kulba

Szurek to Council: King Yertle can’t see Mack

By Leslee Kulba –

Do you know where ThermoFisher Scientific or Western Carolina University’s Asheville campus is? If you said no, it could be because the special signage plan Asheville City Council approved for Biltmore Park Town Square in 2007 isn’t working.

According to Biltmore Farms’ CEO Paul Szurek, only about 75 percent of retail spaces have been rented, whereas 97 percent of apartments and offices spaces are rented. Szurek reminded council that the project was not the recipient of government money, but had to run at a profit to recoup costs of construction. Although he was not asking for money, council, by granting his request, would allow 150 retail jobs to be created and taxes to be collected from properties with a combined value of $18 million. Translating in greenwash terms, Szurek explained the low-rent numbers aren’t sustainable for the urban village ecosystem. He attributed the shortfall to the project’s signage plan.

Currently, the retail spaces are not allowed to have signs, and so they look like apartment buildings. Not only does going incognito fail to attract customers, major retailers know this and so they’re reluctant to rent in Biltmore Park.

Following a semi-supportive staff presentation to Asheville City Council Tuesday, Szurek suggested the difference in opinion was from a difference in perspective. He likened the situation to the story of “Yertle the Turtle” by Dr. Seuss. It’s a story about a stack of turtles. The ones on the top had it nice; they could see the fields and the forests, but they refused to see the struggles of Mack and the turtles on the bottom. Mack was stuck in the mud. He and the others were feeling the weight of doing all the work to sustain the lofty turtles.

All members of council were fine with the signs that would go on buildings interior to the project, but they did not like the signs that would be visible from the highway. Staff suggested, and some on council concurred, that Szurek should make use of existing billboards on the highway instead. With all due respect, he replied that research into consumer behavior by retailers indicates billboards are not as effective as traditional “shingles.”

Unfortunately, Szurek had enclosed quickly-Photoshopped photographs to provide a general idea of how the signs might look. One appeared to have a fifteen-foot-tall nutcracker on either side of a doorway. Szurek assured council the real signs would be tasteful and not “garish.”

Council was leaning toward asking Szurek to return with a better design, but the conversation confused staff. Assistant Planning and Development Director Shannon Tuch had to ask if council wanted Szurek to return with “a new sign plan or better Photoshop images.” After council members batted around the idea of it being sufficient for staff to meet with representatives from Biltmore Farms to hash out “nice” signage, Tuch asked, “At what point is nice good enough?” Assistant City Attorney Martha McGlohon silenced concerns when she informed council that they could not delegate the responsibility of approving variances to staff. Mayor Terry Bellamy requested that they not waste anybody’s time by returning to council with something unacceptable.

In Other Matters –

Council approved a $67,000 economic development incentive for Plasticard-Locktech International. The sum will be paid in equal installments over five years, and it is equal to 75 percent of anticipated property taxes. The funds are to help PLI fund a $4.6 million expansion of its facility in south Asheville and create up to 86 jobs paying at least $12.50 plus comprehensive benefits. PLI representatives claim the expansion would not have taken place in Asheville without the grant.

Following a public hearing during which the usual arguments against corporate welfare were repeated, Gordon Smith responded with the usual “clarification” that no money was being given away; rather, it was being generated as new taxes would always be collected. Smith, however, regretted that economic development grants always go to large companies. Guidelines for rebates are such that business must come up with investments on the order of millions. Smith said he had been searching for strategies that would allow city council to “stimulate smaller businesses as well.” As one option, he suggested they could consider awarding funds to coalitions, such as, he offered, a new Brewers’ Guild. He asked the community to share ideas.

Cecil Bothwell, in turn, stated the usual correction to Smith’s claim. He said PLI would indeed be costing taxpayers because for five years they would be shouldering the costs of infrastructure and services PLI was not supporting. If the city has extra money, it should be used to help everybody fairly. As one last jab, Bothwell commented on all the community leaders who had just bragged about keeping their hotel keys for souvenirs. “I don’t save my key cards. They’re plastic, and I hope they reuse them.” Bothwell was the only member of council to vote against the $67,000 award.

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