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Connecting the Dots, Part II

Colorado State Flag
Colorado State Flag

Is New Belgium now the Tail that Wags the Dog?

From riverfront to city hall, strategically placed incomers emerge

Frommer’s gushy cluelessness on New Year’s morning immediately ruffled feathers among the various players in the Monopoly game that has become the development of Asheville’s River Arts District – so much so that word of all the feather-ruffling caused Frommer to back pedal during another appearance a few days later and point out that the riverfront neighborhood had been the object of individual and corporate initiatives for going on twenty years.

But you can’t unring a bell, and both riverfront stakeholders and some media reasoned that Frommer’s remarks, wide of the mark as they might have been, must have originated somewhere. Investigation revealed – and seems to keep revealing – a distinctive Colorado presence (New Belgium is based in Fort Collins) hovering in the background in several areas of the city’s life and operations, from duly noted philanthropy to media contacts to city government.

According to a report in the June 18 St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times, New Belgium CEO Kim Jordan said the company, now America’s eighth largest brewer, began to “look at Asheville” as a possible site for its east coast operations in 2008. By 2010 New Belgium was already actively engaged in community public relations: it sponsored the first annual Clips of Faith Beer and Film Tour. (New Belgium is an avid supporter of Bicycling, a commitment that extends to calling its flagship ale “Fat Tire.”) Proceeds from the event that year went to Asheville on Bikes, which received $2,376 New Belgium has contributed to the Clips of Faith event every year since and now co-sponsors it; also, the construction of city-funded bike paths around the New Belgium plant was an integral part of the city’s agreement with the brewery. New Belgium’s own internal evaluation of Asheville as a possible location for its new site included the observation that is had a “culture consistency with site being near the arts district for a walk and bike workforce.”

(Avid Asheville cyclists include Vice Mayor Marc Hunt, City Manager Gary Jackson and Asheville Citizen-Times executive editor Josh Awtry.)

Late in 2012, New Belgium formally announced that it had selected Asheville as its east coast manufacturing and distribution site. This was after the city put together an $8.5 million incentive package for New Belgium itself, then threw in city-funded improvements for a ¾-mile stretch of Craven Street, which borders the brewery site, that would include the brewery’s specified greenways and bike paths. The amount originally budgeted for the Craven Street improvements was slightly more than $850,000, but the final contract amount was $6.9 million, which nearly doubled the amount being spent on the project.

During the 2013 city council election campaign, then-candidate Esther Manheimer stressed that New Belgium would be paying about $250,000 a year in property taxes. However, research revealed that the covenant with New Belgium indicated the corporation would be receiving about $364,000 in tax breaks over a period of 13 years, creating a net loss of about $1.48 million over that length of time. Many locals felt that for a city government that had only recently revealed it was in a cold sweat about deficits, this seemed an incongruous way to try to cure the problem.

Thus, observers and homeowners near the selected New Belgium site began to separate into two camps: it-takes-money-to-make-money and charity-begins-at-home. New Belgium quickly established a Neighborhood Business Leader Roundtable designed to “interface” with the community and spread the gospel of New Belgium as a catalyst for economic growth and community enrichment. Local political analysts credit his role in the roundtable activities as furnishing at least one current city council candidate, financial advisor Rich Lee, with a springboard into city politics.

Roundtable meetings are held in the conference room of FLS Solar Energy Company, which former city councilman and present county commissioner Brownie Newman joined in 2008 and where he now serves as a vice president. In 2013 FLS was going through a rocky financial patch and had had to scale back operations considerably. In 2014, however, FLS was rescued by a consortium of four private investment firms. One of these was Vision Ridge Partners, of Boulder, Colorado, which is commuting distance (45 miles) from Fort Collins. In fact, Vision Ridge apparently shares New Belgium’s commitment to sustainability and “green development.” Records show the two companies donate to the same environmental PAC’s and participated in the same conference last year.

At the municipal level, in March of 2014 the city recruited Paul Fetherston, who wa sat that time serving as deputy city manager of Boulder, to be Asheville’s new Assistant City Manager. In announcing Fetherston’s departure, the city of Boulder said,“he will support key initiatives such as the redevelopment of Asheville’s riverfront, expansion of Asheville’s multimodal transportation system and implementation of a place-based and sustainable economic vitality vision.” Fetherston also has a law degree, with a concentration in contracts.

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