Prior to Tuesday’s public hearing, Councilman Gordon Smith asked permission to provide some context. He wanted the developers to help council with its strategic goals, which included providing living wages, supporting the local arts, promoting transit, contributing to affordable housing, improving infrastructure, and lobbying Raleigh to allow a portion of the hotel tax to go to the city’s general fund. “The BB&T is ugly, but exploitation of the City of Asheville is uglier,” he said.
An overwhelming majority of comments praised the project and the developers. Here and there, people from different economic sectors and walks of life told how developer John McKibbon was not only a philanthropist in many dimensions, but, as a businessman, an exponent of sound economic principles that would help the city in the long run.
Timothy Sadler, who engages in public comment at almost every council meeting, sharing how he helped shape proposals, suggested McKibbon’s proposal to contribute to council’s demands become a new, gold standard for development in Asheville. Many on council latched onto and echoed that sentiment. Following is what McKibbon freely offered council, before anybody had a chance to twist his arm before the cameras.
“I’m John McKibbon, and I live at 32 Westhaven Drive in Asheville, a good bit of the year. And I know each of y’all. Y’all know me. I’ve been around about twenty years doing business here. I’ve met and talked to a lot of you in the past. I follow the Citizen Times. I read it every day, and watch WLOS. And against the recommendations of others, I read the comments, which can be enlightening at times. And you know what I love? I love the fact that this is one passionate community. That is so important because I know communities that are full of apathy, and they don’t work well, and I know that council has the pulse of the community, and I’ve listened to what you’ve said in the past.
“Councilman [Cecil] Bothwell, I know how you feel about the design of the Aloft and those neon lights. First of all, I want to say I worked a lot harder on this design. A couple years ago, I requested from Starwood that we turn off the neon lights. I got approval, and actually I turned off those lights almost a year ago. So they are gone. They’re not coming back. There will not be any neon lights on this building,
“Councilman Smith, I know how passionate you are about the living wage and many other topics that you mentioned earlier. You and I’ve talked about it. This wage situation is absolutely not unique to Asheville; it is really a national problem. But I want you to know that we will pay a living wage for our fulltime employees of this project, and I think I may be the first person to ever come before you and commit that I would do that to the council. Not only that, but we also have a 401(k) plan that we match, we have profit sharing, we have many benefits for our people. My business is nothing but people. Without our people, we have nothing. If you don’t know this, at our Aloft hotel, we’ve been voluntarily paying a living wage there for almost a year. So, we are going to do this. There’s just no doubt about it.
“A lot of the council members have had concerns about other things. One of those is you want us to support the local art scene here. Absolutely. We’ll do that. We have a tremendous amount of art in our Aloft hotel, and it’s all produced by local artists, and it’s beautiful.
“You don’t want any national chains here. Absolutely. We are not going to have any national chains in this building. We’re going to absolutely have local or maybe regional tenants up there. That’s my commitment there. Again, back to the Aloft, we have two spaces there. We leased one to the Blackbird restaurant, a local group; and the other, we actually waited two years, let it sit empty two years, until we finally found the right tenant, Diamond Brand. A local company, great product. So, we’ll do the same thing in this project. We will hire local and will use transit.
“I actually was not aware of the Passport program until Councilmember [Julie] Mayfield brought this up to me. We’ve already looked into it. I think this is something that might work. And I also want to add that the car-sharing program is something that we want to do, and we can reserve a spot in the garage we’re building for this car because it’s going to help us as much as it will help our residents and our hotel guests.
“And, of course, I read the comments about the tourists wearing out the sidewalks, and I will have to admit that I agree. After 100 years, these sidewalks need a lot of work. There’s no doubt about it. So, as you’ve heard, we are going to widen the sidewalks. It’s going to be amazing what we’re doing. And we’re going to beautify them. And we are spending $750,000 of our money on city property to make that happen. You’re going to absolutely love that.
“Affordable housing. Again, this is a national epidemic. It is a real problem, and it is a problem here in Asheville. And, as you know, I’ve been involved in this community for awhile, but even my daughter who lives in Austin has had to move further away from downtown because she cannot afford the rents because they keep going up. So I’m aware of this. It’s not a tourism problem, it’s a community problem. The Mountain Housing Opportunity group, they have 252 units. Only 8 of those are people who work in hotels. This is really a whole community issue that we need to work on together. But, to help in this effort, I’m committing $250,000 to the Asheville Affording Housing Trust. And this is just a start, though. I’m going to work with Mountain Housing Opportunities and other groups with cash and one other thing we’ve got. We’ve got great development expertise, and we’re going to help with that as well. And we’re going to grow – or help grow – the supply of affordable housing. And we feel like we can actually make Asheville a national model to address this problem.
“And then, a final, very touchy issue is the Tourism Development Authority. And I serve on that board. I’ve read the Facebook site, which – maybe here tonight – is calling for a moratorium on hotels until the hoteliers give the tax to the city. I promise you all those hoteliers out there would love that. No more hotels? They would absolutely love that. But that’s not the solution. It sounds good, but it’s not the solution. Tourism is our primary industry here. It always has been. Asheville has probably the very best CVB in the country. They’ve had a reputation for years. They’ve got a great staff that works extremely hard; a great director; and the TDA board members, a majority of whom are not even hoteliers, and especially not in this city. So, we’ve got people that really commit a lot of volunteer time to make that organization work to improve tourism here. Maybe they’re doing too good of a job? But you know what? It really is important to our community, and they’re working hard.
“100 percent of the hotel tax comes from out-of-town visitors; not a penny from locals. It is a good thing. But you know what? We do need to modify the tax, the way it’s structured, and from the beginning, I pushed to get the majority of this new tax for capital projects. Mayor, you know that. That has been something that I have not been happy about since the tax went in. And currently, 75 percent of the tax goes for marketing, and 25 percent for capital projects. We need to modify that percentage. We need to work together with the state to make that happen, and I will support that. What would be great is if we could have some kind of flexibility so when the economy’s bad we can spend more on marketing, and when it’s great, like it is now, we can spend more on capital. Capital is a great thing. We are an authority. We work for the city and county. It’s a great way to spend the money.
“We recently committed $3.8 million to city projects. These projects were for greenways. They were for soccer fields, the Nature Center, and for museums. And you know what? These projects will be used more by locals than by tourists, but it’s a great mix because tourists will use them, too. That’s what we want to do with the money. We’ll take more of the money and spend it in that direction.
“I know we’ve got a lot of new council members, and I know this community has asked you to slow the growth. We have lots of growth. All cities in the South are having this kind of growth. I know the issue about no more hotels, but the fact is, tomorrow somebody could go down to city hall and file for a Level 2 hotel. And if they meet all the requirements, they can get it done. But really, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you to deal with this issue. This one hotel tonight is not going to solve that issue. It’s something that you have before you.
“I’ve tried to give you something to take back to constituents, something that will balance it out. And years from now, I don’t think people are going to remember that you voted for a hotel. I think they’re going to remember that you voted for a project that put money into affordable housing and repaired the building that really has been an eyesore for many years, so it has impacted our community for 50 years.
So, I’m just asking you to weigh all the issues and make a decision tonight that will be good for our community. Thank you.”
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler was appreciative and expressed her gratitude. Mayfield echoed her sentiments and added that citizens need to elect new representatives in 2017 that will help the city claim a portion of the hotel tax. On the subject of the hotel tax, Bothwell said it was “so extremely odd” that the Asheville hotel industry had vehemently opposed increasing the hotel tax for fear it would drive away business, until hoteliers overbuilt. Then, they argued the tax was needed to fund advertising to get more tourists to town. Bothwell’s main objection was that the “amazing project” was a hotel.
Smith, too, was appreciative. He said McKibbon had “heard what the people of Asheville are asking of its industry leaders,” and added, “You have won me over, sir!” Mayor Esther Manheimer also praised the project as potentially setting the new, McKibbon standard. She regretted the city was powerless to legislate a minimum wage, adding she would hold a referendum on the matter tomorrow if she had the authority. However, she said council did have the power to support living-wage projects that would exert upward wage pressure on other employers in the city.
Bothwell made a motion to approve the project. “Oh, yeah!” he interjected as he read the portion of the printed motion about adding visual interest to the Asheville skyline. Only Brian Haynes and Keith Young cast dissenting votes. Haynes read a written statement indicating he was going to honor his promise to his constituents to stem the growth of the hotel industry.