Ben Teague explained that about six years ago, “We listened to the community, and they wanted jobs. They wanted capital investment, to be able to return tax base to our community to provide services to our community.” He said before launching the 2010 Asheville 5×5 plan, industrial growth and expansion was investing only $37 million a year in the community. With the 5×5 plan, that number averaged over $200 million a year for five years, and over 6000 jobs were created directly, indirectly, and inductively. So, with the winding up of the 2010 5×5 plan, the EDC returned to the community. This time, there was general demand for recruiting or expanding innovative industries that would create skilled jobs with a median wage over $50,000. Over the next five years, the EDC has set a goal of helping 50 new high-growth companies assemble $10 million in equity investment, and then committing another $650 million to capital investment.
That was well and good, but Councilman Gordon Smith spoke on behalf of local artists. He asked why arts and culture were not targeted by the new program. He argued home-grown entrepreneurs and artists were the heart and soul of Asheville’s downtown. He wanted to stop chain stores from coming downtown and “pushing up property values”. He did not want to see a “sea of Starbucks.” Kitty Love, who for over a decade has been the face of the local artists’ lobby, was in the room. She explained the Asheville Community Arts Council had no metrics to show the city’s return on investment for their subsidies to the arts community. She described the arts community as being led by thousands of microentrepreneurs in need of asset mapping. For “hands-on understanding of the ecology of the creative sector,” she wanted to partner with the EDC to invest in econometric analysis, possibly using the online tool, Creative Vitality Suite.
Marc Hunt, who has served as council’s liaison to the EDC, apologized for failing to communicate the purpose of the EDC to his peers. The objective of the EDC was to create high-paying jobs. It focuses on recruiting large businesses like New Belgium, Linamar, and GE. The arts community, by contrast, was very dispersed and difficult to define as an economic sector. Mayor Esther Manheimer added that the public has also misconstrued the EDC as being responsible for bringing unskilled, low-wage hotel jobs to the area. That is not the case at all. After clarifying the EDC’s role, Hunt and Manheimer said they believed strongly that municipal funds should subsidize artists, but that support of the arts should be in partnership with organizations with missions more aligned to the task.
Councilman Cecil Bothwell again shared his belief that economic development organizations merely took credit for business deals that would have happened anyway. He said New Belgium wanted a place with a lot of water and highway access; and their hipster workers preferred the quirkiness of Asheville to Philadelphia. Linamar located in an empty Volvo plant because their main customer was Volvo and the plant could continue using the same workforce and machinery that had been in operation. In both situations, insiders had told Bothwell the incentives had nothing to do with the deal. Bothwell had no word from GE, but the corporate giant did open four sites in the state simultaneously. He said from the last city council campaign trail, he had heard citizens say they had had it to their eyeballs with growth. The city was not building and maintaining infrastructure to keep pace, so rather than spending limited funds on sidewalks, council was about to invest in recruiting more growth. Bothwell also complained about the chamber’s unwillingness to let the city have a portion of its increased hotel tax allocated toward public works.
Following his remarks, the mayor said, “Thanks, Ben, for standing there while that happened.” Bothwell cast the lone dissenting vote.
In Other Matters –
Hunt and Jan Davis cast the only votes in favor of allowing a self-storage facility on Hendersonville Road next to what is known as the Shiloh Community. The proposal came to council with a recommendation from city staff and the Planning and Zoning Commission to deny it. Problems cited were inappropriate scale and misalignment with city council’s strategic operating plan and the Shiloh Community Plan. Attorney Lou Bissette was a bit surprised by the eleventh-hour opposition. He said the developer had held three community meetings, and “left each one with people saying, ‘We think this is a pretty good project.’” Even so, the developer ended up changing the blueprints to move the building further from the neighborhood, construct a berm, and plant a 30-ft buffer. Hunt and some residents thought the design was attractive and far superior to a number of projects the zoning would allow by right. Neighbor Adam Thome said, “I don’t remember anybody asking us what we thought about the Bojangles, or the auto parts store, or the liquor store that was built just a few hundred yards north.”
By way of its consent agenda, council approved without a sound the sale of a condominium on North Skyloft Drive for $140,000. In 2008, the city had provided a Housing Trust Fund (HTF) loan in the amount of $30,000 for the construction of affordable housing on that site. The city’s next engagement was to purchase the property in a foreclosure auction for $100,438. Members of council’s Housing & Community Development Committee resolved to recover the city’s losses by flipping the property, provided it could be deed-restricted to further council’s strategic goals. First, in perpetuity, the property could only be sold to a person earning no more than 100 percent of AMI. Secondly, presumably to stem the proliferation of low-income families purchasing large vacation homes in the area, the property had to be a primary residence. Thirdly, it was to be marketed only to city employees. Without a reasonable offer, the city expanded marketing to include county employees and then any government employee. By October 31 this year, the city would have paid $4730 in taxes, utilities, and condominium association fees. So, it was decided to market the property to the general public, and a buyer was found. Proceeds will be returned to the HTF.