By sheer chance, LEAF leadership presented Asheville City Council with an emergency request for funding the Tuesday before the festival. At the beginning of council’s meeting, Mayor Esther Manheimer informed her peers an “item of New Business” had been added to the agenda, “and the documents pertaining to that item are at your seats.” Manheimer stated the memorandum contained information on ”partnering” and “proposed services.”
LEAF Executive Director Jennifer Pickering led a tag team in making a case for whatever was in those papers. She was joined by LEAF Schools & Streets Director Jocelyn Reese, Community Arts Coordinator Schree Chavdarov, and Development Director Adam Bowers.
Pickering explained LEAF had been partnering with the city for eleven years, providing programs for children. Pickering cleverly worded the program’s objectives as occupying youth so Tammy Hooper, the city’s new police chief, wouldn’t have to entertain them down the road.
Chavdarov spoke about the Easel Rider program, formerly known as the Asheville Mobile Arts Lab. It used to only get around to 48 events a year, but last year it visited over 70. Another big program was the drumming that takes place at the Wesley Grant Community Center. Reese spoke of dance classes offered by the Schools & Streets program. Schools & Streets also operates a One Mic Recording Studio on the premise that if one gives a child a microphone and lets him hear his voice, expressing thoughts through song, it can change his life forever.
Councilwoman Gwen Wisler stepped up to be the adult in the room. She acknowledged LEAF does “amazing things” to help kids. She was certain the program was addressing a need the city would otherwise be funding with tax dollars, and it may well have merited outside agency funding had it made the deadlines.
As for the deadlines, Pickering politely responded she was new to the city and was trying to learn how to navigate the processes. Manheimer explained part of the problem was she at first thought LEAF’s leadership was looking for funding for the downtown festival. The idea was pooh-poohed because the city is getting out of the festival business, sustaining support only for traditions like the Drum Circle and Shindig on the Green.
When it became apparent that the organization was looking for general funding, problems arose because LEAF isn’t exactly an outside agency. It provides community services, which the city might otherwise provide, on municipally-owned properties. In that sense, it is more like the City of Asheville Youth Leadership Academy (CAYLA). Manheimer said figuring out how to pigeonhole this unique endeavor was what prevented it from making budget cycle deadlines. Pickering said the funding couldn’t wait any longer because LEAF would face contracting deadlines for its parent coordinator and teachers for the fall semester the following week.
It was Manheimer who let on that LEAF was requesting $15,000. City Manager Gary Jackson said he would not be comfortable making a budget amendment this early in the fiscal year. The request, he said, “doesn’t rise to that level of urgency.” Wisler wanted to know what city initiatives would be displaced by pulling $15,000 for LEAF. Jackson said there was not enough money in the Parks and Recreation budget, but typically, the city’s $100 million budget can fluctuate about 1 percent through the year. Jackson thought absorbing $15,000 here and there was not too much to ask.
Wisler further wanted to know if the city’s Recreation Board had had a chance to review the project. Jackson said it hadn’t. Wisler explained what is fairest in disbursing a finite sum is to have a well-communicated application process with reviewers able to weigh the merits of all candidates side-by-side.
Jan Davis asked what LEAF would do should council reject the request. The short answer was the programs would not reach so many youth. Pickering wanted council to know LEAF was “efficient and 100-percent dedicated to the community.”
When Davis asked point-blank if the funding was for the festival, Pickering said no. The objective of LEAF Downtown was, “to expand our conversation with our community partners and deepen those relationships and to have a larger platform of the voices of Asheville represented, which you will see this weekend. So, [the funding request] is not augmenting [the festival]. This is more about the possibilities that have been created because the LEAF Downtown conversation has opened up not only the doors but also the awareness of how we can serve our community better.”
After continuing somewhat in that vein, she added, “This is really inexpensive, powerful work. And if we’re not paying attention to those youth and those community-building pieces, we’re gonna have some other conversations in the next few years in our city.”
Davis said he appreciated Pickering’s concerns for children. This year’s outside agency funding process targeted projects deemed most likely to help at-risk youth. Council even added $50,000 to the pot. He regretted Pickering had gotten lost in red tape, but many other organizations that did make the deadlines received no funding. Davis said he was “almost reluctant” to approve the funding, but Wisler cast the only vote against.
It was next time for public comment. Manheimer announced the arrival of some special guests. The first was Rich Davis. The four others were members of the Civic Center Commission. As the quintet approached the lectern, Jan Davis could be heard off-mic saying, “I recognize him.”
Rich, who happens to be Davis’ son, presented to council a petition to honor his father with the naming of a portion of the building in his honor. Since serving on the Civic Center Commission and through his tenure on city council, Davis has been a strong advocate for the center. He resisted plans to level the building and build another facility out in the country. He advocated for investing in improvements when the building was shamed for rumors of indoor rainfall during concerts, a white paper circulated scandalously listing structural problems, and worst of all, SoCon said it was going elsewhere. Thanks to Davis, the building is still there, ambitious capital improvements continue, and SoCon is back.
Davis, visibly emotional, offered, “It’s a humbling experience to have your son and four of your best friends come up here and ask for something after I have just beaten a pretty little girl over $15,000. Jennifer [Pickering], I will have you know that I probably appreciate street festivals and good things for this city more than most anybody I know. I appreciate what you do, and I couldn’t have worse timing.” Davis said he’d be fine with or without the naming, but the gesture was certainly a highlight of his life.
To that Manheimer instructed, “Jan, we need your name forevermore in the Civic Center.” Davis suggested something in the form of bathroom graffiti. Then, he suggested something to do with a notorious stairwell. Bothwell noted the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium hadn’t been renamed in awhile. A place will be selected before council’s next meeting. A standing ovation followed.