By Heather Berry- The Tribune Papers is featuring a series of interviews with Buncombe County commissioner candidates. Nancy Nehls Nelson is a commissioner candidate and shared with the reporter an informal discussion about her background and experience.
Family: My husband is Curtis Nelson. We have been together since 1972 and married in 1987. I have four stepsons, who are all grown. One stepson lives in South Carolina and three live in California. I have two step-grandkids. One teaches at Northwestern University and one grandkid works for George Lucas’ non-profit Edutopia in California. My dad died in 2005 and my mom died a few weeks ago at the age of 97.
Where do you live? We’ve lived in Reems Creek since 2003.
Where are you from? I grew up in Minneapolis. I spent most of my adult life in suburbs outside of Chicago working for AT&T Bell Laboratories for 25 years. I was in international marketing, embedded in the technology switching division which makes machines to switch telephone calls. Bell Laboratories was the research and development division for AT&T back in those days.
Growing up in Minneapolis, my mom was born in Baltimore and grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. Her dad was a civil engineer and they lived all over the South. My dad was from Cedar Rapids, Iowa and they met when both of them were in the U.S. Army in Temple, Texas. My mom was an R.N. and my dad was back from his first tour in Europe during World War II. My mom spent the last part of the war taking care of amputees. My mom contracted tuberculosis from the prisoners and medically retired. My parents settled in Minneapolis because my dad had family there. But, we always knew we had southern relatives.
In the 1990s, my husband and I traveled to Asheville. My husband was a potter and he started meeting some other potters down here. We learned of this community and began coming here on vacation. We looked around and asked, ‘What areas are still rural?’ We chose to come here. Moving to Asheville was not an accident, like so many people. We chose to move to Weaverville. We chose to move into a cove where we were only the second family from ‘away.’ Before we purchased our property, we went to our neighbors and asked if they had concerns about someone moving in from the outside. We’ve gotten to know our neighbors really well.
Profession: I studied consumer psychology at the University of Minnesota. When I was working for AT&T Bell Laboratories, I earned my master’s degree at Stevens Institute of Technology in Princeton, N.J. I actually started out at 3M Products in their tape division, then worked for a company that manufactured printing presses. I taught people how to run printing presses. Then, I worked for AT&T for
Was community service a part of your life growing up? Community service was always a part of our family. My mom helped with scouting. My dad was very involved with youth football and baseball.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my family didn’t have a lot of money. At 16, I started working full time. I worked full time the whole time I was finishing high school and college. I paid my own way through the University of Minnesota. I didn’t have time to be very involved in serving the community. I had to babysit my brothers and sisters, work and save for college. My parents told us, ‘Success was getting a college education, getting a good job and being able to support yourself.’ I used the student loan system. I had a coupon book that was about three inches thick. I still remember the amount I paid monthly, $31.15. It felt like I’d have that payment the rest of my life.
What community service have you been involved with since moving to this area? I volunteer at the Reuter Center’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC-Asheville. I teach beginning oil painting classes and another class for students who have touched oils, but aren’t total beginners. In the mid-1990s, I started oil painting with my mom. We started going to workshops together. It was an amazing experience. We traveled to New Mexico and different parts of Florida. I did a lot of painting as a hobby. When we came down here, I wanted to make a new life for myself. My husband wanted to work on his pottery and I paint. I was asked to start teaching here.
What about your background, do you think, gives you an advantage in this elected office? To me, the county commissioner is the financial agent for residents in the county. When people ask, ‘What does the county commission to?’ I say, ‘They spend our money.’ The county spends money mostly on public health, public safety and education; those are the big three.
I believe my background in business and project management at AT&T helped me understand how the county government works with the state government. The relationship between these two is different in North Carolina is different than any I’ve seen. I need to understand what can be executed at the county level, and what can’t be executed at the county level.
A lot of people talk about how county finances are run. I think when someone says a county shouldn’t have debt is very short-sighted. Any business runs with debt. We run with debt when you have a mortgage or car payment. The fact that this county has a Triple A bond rating and is a very solid entity is a testimony to how it’s been run. I want to make Buncombe better.
What are your thoughts on traffic issues in North Buncombe, urban growth in Asheville and surrounding areas, public transportation for rural areas? Since we’ve been here, I’ve cut my teeth on local land use issues. I’ve been looking at the local ordinances and how they impact urban sprawl. Because of this work, I’ve been able to work with the county departments. I’ve met the people at the county and I’ve worked on some campaigns for people in the county like David Gantt in 2008 and 2012 and Patsy Keever’s campaign in 2004. I am involved in the Democratic Party in Buncombe County.
I sat on the Weaverville planning board for two years. I was appointed by Al Root who was the mayor at that time. I learned how Weaverville had taken a very strong stance on a master plan completed in 2012. It was a great master plan and clarified what Weaverville could do to protect itself and prevent ruining a beautiful little town. The town created a residential zone called “Countryside rural” which essentially says development can take place, but has to align with the density that is there already. I think it was really wise. The current town codes don’t mesh with the county codes and that’s one of the reasons I want to work for the county, because when we revisit those ordinances, they need to make sure they aren’t killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Asheville, like Aspen, like Boulder, like Sanibel Island, like the Hamptons, relies on tourists. There’s no way we can get away from this fact. We are not Charlotte. My husband lived in Aspen in the 1970s. Affordable housing was an issue in the 1970s in Aspen. Anywhere you have money coming to town from tourists spending money at restaurants and second and third homes, you are going to have an affordable housing issue. That’s just the name of the game.
Does this mean we should have more regulation at the county level? I don’t think so. Instead, I think we need to focus on those big three I mentioned before: public safety, public health and education. It’s time the state redefines what they are doing for education and step up to the plate. The county is doing the best it can. Teachers should be paid a fair and living salary and making sure there is money for the buildings. The relationship between the county and the state is very important. It also plays into the traffic issue. This is one of the issues I’m running for office.
When the county approves a development, the state department of transportation will tell you that they are compelled to make sure the driveway is hooked up to a state road. When people come before the county commissioners complaining about traffic issues, the county says, ‘Not our problem.’ When you go to the department of transportation and complain, they say, ‘If the county approved it, we can’t do anything.’
Without pointing fingers, we have to partner, we need to look at the current ordinances and understand the relationship between the county and the state. We need to stop spending money where we shouldn’t be spending money, but continue to spend money where it’s needed. I’m a strong believer in incentives to bring more business to the area. I’m also a strong supporter when it comes to service workers being protected for their jobs and benefits.
One of my platforms is the need for Buncombe County to continue on its path of economic strength with smart land use. By that, I mean we need to examine everything from local ordinances to the relationship we have with the state when it comes to water and traffic. We need to see if we can get ahead of the curve, so we don’t go the same way as Boulder, where the city became so overdeveloped that they basically made the area unattractive to visit. So, people stopped coming.
Our big resource is water. If we aren’t careful with our water consumption, we won’t have any outdoor water activities.
What are your core values? After about 11 p.m., I got a phone call from a neighbor who said his wife had fallen. From his wheelchair, he couldn’t get her back up again. They had a son who was physically and mentally challenged and couldn’t help either. I put my clothes on and went over, thinking, ‘How am I going to help them see there are county services who could help them?’
I helped the woman get upright and they thanked me and I went home. Within five months, all three of them had passed away. I was helping the family executor deal with the animals and things that needed cleaned up. It’s those people who live in our area, who I think need the attention of the county. Yet, over 50 percent of the people who live in District 2 have moved here within the last 15 years. These are people like me who have brought our money, our education, our time and we are here to partner to work and love these people. I cannot imagine feeling more connected to the land than I do now. I have been on the land conservation advisory board for more than ten years. I’ve been working on farm preservation and I’ve met all these people in our community. When we first got here, a local farmer took me around and introduced me to folks. He sorta patted me on the head and said, ‘She’s okay.’ That’s allowed me to meet more people than I might have, being from ‘away.’
My core values are to help people who want help, work alongside people with the same mission I have and I want to make sure Buncombe remains a strong county and I want to make it better.