By Pete Zamplas-Diane Caldwell, who wants Hendersonville property taxes and water rates lowered temporarily during the recession, hopes to surprise frontrunners and land a spot back on City Council.
Caldwell edged another former Council member, Ralph Freeman, by 28 votes in the primary Oct. 8 to advance to the ballot on Nov. 5. Polls are open 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Early voting lasts weekdays, Oct. 17-Nov. 2.
She placed fourth among four finalists in the non-partisan race with 12 percent — eight percentage points behind second-place Jerry Smith, an incumbent. But she could make up ground by picking up a vast majority of voters of eliminated Freeman and Guri Andermann, who totaled 16.3 percent of the 2,911 votes. Jeff Miller and councilman Jeff Collis are the other two finalists.
Caldwell, 61, served on the City Council from 1993-97 when Fred Niehoff was mayor. “We reduced taxes” then, she recalled. That era marked addition of the city’s first city manager, Chris Carter. A perk was nixed. “If you were a city employee or council member, you got water free. We decided if city residents pay for it, we should as well.”
A local native, she was a teen when school integration began. She graduated from Blue Ridge Job Corps in Marion, Va. in 1969, months after transferring from Hendersonville High. She earned a B.S. in business management and accounting, from Shaw University. Her two associate degrees from Blue Ridge Community College are in computer programming and business administration.
She runs her TRYME (as in “try me out”) Enterprises, Inc. She handles accounting, payroll and and tax returns. “I try to help new small (10 or fewer workers) businesses who can’t afford to pay a whole lot to get it off the ground.”
“People are my passion,” Caldwell said. Her campaign manager, Rose Stone, is a former Henderson County Democratic Party treasurer. She has known Caldwell since moving here 21 years ago. Back then, Caldwell worked with the Mainstay shelter for abused women, and Stone volunteered for the non-profit.
Stone is impressed with “her enthusiasm. Diane has always been cheerful, and energetic. She’s taken a civic interest, and served on many boards. Diane looks forward to winning, and representing the people.”
Indeed, “A Voice for the People” is Caldwell’s campaign slogan. She has four children, a step-daughter and six grandchildren. She lives behind the Boys and Girls Club, and was among its initial board members two decades ago. She lives near North Main on the north side of the Green Meadows community, near the Historic Seventh Avenue District, Inc.
Candidates agree the city should do more to help revitalize that business district. Caldwell has special insights, as one of its board members and nearby residents. She seeks a private-public partnership such as to seek Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), to rehabilitate businesses and homes on Seventh Avenue and side streets.
“These grants are harder to get now,” she said. She recalled Western Carolina Community Action (WCCA) securing a CDBG grant a quarter-century ago for houses, then when she was on Council a grant helped refurbish the pivotal Historic Train Depot.
“The city cannot do it all. I would not expect that, as a Council member,” she said. “The City can do what its budget allows, in that area. It can assist in the growth, but not be entirely responsible. The property owners and renters need to do much as well, to help make Seventh Avenue more vibrant. It needs to be more interesting to walk to, to shop and eat.”
The historic Grey Hosiery Mill site a few blocks from Seventh Avenue could help link Seventh and Main Street merchants, she noted. But she is wary of a developer’s proposal to put apartments there, unless plans shift to “affordable housing.”
Rather than sell it too cheaply for private use, she suggests demolishing the mill for public parking. “Some say get rid of it. It’s an historic building. But if it’s truly such an eyesore, level it. Put in a two-story parking deck.”
As for Berkeley Mills Park, she suggests developing the park “in layers.” She does not see urgency for that park. She said Green Meadows residents often prefer to use the park there, while some teenagers walk to Patton Park to swim and “hang out with their friends.”
She opposes the park bond referendum, out of concern it could trigger a tax raise. “With our economy so shaky and so many people out of work and facing difficulties, we don’t need to add to taxes. That would not be fair. Many have lost their jobs, retirement (pensions) and homes (to foreclosure). Many people are under-employed, having to work three jobs to make a living wage. The average wage is $11 an hour, across the nation. But most places here are not paying that. Most people cannot afford (owning) a home.”
To help during lingering recession, the city can “loosen the bands and lighten the burden,” Caldwell said. “We can temporarily reduce taxes for both residents and businesses, and forego some rate increases and fees. There’s already talk of raising water and sewer rates. We should reduce water and sewer rates and tap fees, to give incentive to start a business. As the economy recovers, let taxes and fees recover incrementally. So people can absorb it better.”
Further, Caldwell is for easing the city’s emergency funds. “If we reduce taxes and fees, we may have to dip into the reserves,” she said. “I understand from the incumbents the city is in really good shape. If so, share it with your residents to keep them going financially.”
She suggests forming a student leadership board and having liaisons to “neighborhood meetings,” to give the city input on “issues that matter to them” including jobs and recreation. “We educate our children, but give them away as (labor) resources. They can’t come home and make a decent wage.” She eyes city-county tax breaks and other “collaboration to bring in clean industry.
Her campaign networking includes “utilizing people in county who have friends in the city.” For more on Diane Caldwell, check dianecaldwellcampaign.com.