Sometimes the scene unfolds with unusual twists and turns, but there’s no point in trying to sort it out. If the curious were to receive a straight answer, they would doubt its veracity. Government leaders are out to convince the citizens it is their responsibility to feel the positive energy. The math is avoided as if too complicated for a public discussion. It relies on software known to double-count and extrapolate beyond reason. But to challenge the premises would get one singled out for mean-spiritedness. Citizen Jerry Rice frequently, in roundabout ways, takes advantage of public comment periods to tell the Buncombe County Commissioners their lack of frankness makes them look suspicious.
Then, there are the issues of fairness that never come up, such as why we can’t just let the market, properly defined as each person voting with his money for the products and services he prefers, decide which businesses will survive. Forging public-private partnerships is, for no good reason, extolled as a higher good than putting all entrepreneurs on an equal footing. Rather than protecting liberty and justice for all, elected leaders see themselves as the pump to redistribute public confiscations to the quickest kisser-uppers. It’s called “economic development” because “cronyism” is a word that disfigures the positive energy fields, but nowhere near as seriously as its exercise distorts healthy economies.
At the commissioners’ September 2 meeting, Martin Lewis of Fletcher Partners, Inc. requested a $1.3 million donation for the newly-forming Enka Youth Sports Organization. The creators of the EYSO, he explained, would then use the funds to leverage a $2.4 million grant from the Tourism Development Authority. The first twist was that, rather than just reaching into its stash of tax collections to fund the project, the county was going to use the proceeds from the sale of a spec building, on Jacob Holm Way in Candler, that Fletcher Partners had donated to the county last December. At $1.3 million, the sale price would be well below the tax-appraised $1.59 million.
The staff reports for the September 16 meeting revealed a little more of the plan. Wicked Weed was identified as the private party with which the commissioners had been in negotiations. In addition to buying the peoples’ building on the cheap, Wicked Weed agreed to receiving a cash grant in the amount of $74,925 and paying reduced rent of roughly sixteen cents per month for the first six months, $5000/month for the next thirty months, then $5833.33/month for the year 2017. Wicked Weed has the option to purchase the building anytime before the lease agreement is up.
Rick Guthy, cofounder of Wicked Weed, lathered the commissioners up with praise for Asheville and Buncombe County as he made his case before them. To quell concerns that the project was turning to government because it did not qualify for conventional loans, he shared that he was going to receive over $7 million in financing from banks. Whereas receipt of corporate welfare from the state treasury requires the applicant to demonstrate they would not locate or expand in North Carolina “but for” the government grant, Guthy enthusiastically exclaimed that, in spite of other offers, his heart and soul were in Asheville and he would proceed with setting up operations in the spec building with or without the perks.
Another reason to drop out after tuning in is that the commissioners look like one big rubber stamp. If one or two commissioners stray from the predictable decision, it is easy enough to believe it was a throw-away vote to differentiate them from other candidates without rocking the boat. This time, however, Commissioner Joe Belcher took a stance. What’s more, rather than blaming the time or conjuring some other politically-innocuous excuse, he spoke in terms of morality and fairness. In a rare move, he put defense of his constituents’ free exercise of conscience before go-along-to-get-along, hook-line-and-sinker swallowing of the prosperity promised by pitchers. “I’m probably going to be the lone ranger here… This has absolutely nothing to do with you,” he told the representatives from Wicked Weed, “but I can’t vote for extending incentives to the beer and alcohol industry.”
Although Brownie Newman had already made a motion seconded by Mike Fryar, David Gantt made a second motion that Ellen Frost seconded, and the measure passed 6-1. Belcher was correct about being the lone ranger.
Belcher did, however, support a related motion. It was to send a joint letter from the city and county to the Tourism Development Association in support of the $2.4 million grant the newly-forming EYSO wished to pursue. The letter also requested funding for a project referred to as the City of Asheville Riverfront Destination Development. In a unanimous vote, the commissioners approved a page of hooey.
It offered that both projects, will “clearly create substantial incremental increases in new room night generation,” “grow the sports/outdoor recreation tourism cluster,” “have substantial matching contributions by the city and county,” “have the ability to make immediate positive economic impacts on the region,” “allow for significant future synergy and linkage between each other with the Hominy Creek Greenway corridor,” “target families that will come to the area and stay additional nights because of the projects,” “represent significant partnerships and involvement of both the public and private sector,” and “achieve in significant ways the intent of the [Tourism Product Development Fund] program as established.”