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Asheville City Council creates downtown Business Improvement District

ASHEVILLE –

In its second and final vote, Asheville City Council approved a downtown Business Improvement District June 11 amid impassioned — and often frustrated — dissent. A small crowd gathered on the street to protest before the meeting, accompanied by a marching band whose drums could be heard from the meeting room. After the vote, the sound crested from the downtown street below in a drowning, furious blare.

Jen Hampton, lead organizer with Asheville Food and Beverage United, a coalition that supports local service workers, said she couldn’t shake a phrase from the initial proposal that directed those hired by the BID to address any activities deemed “out of the ordinary.”

“That’s kind of Asheville,” she said during public comment, urging City Council to vote against the BID. “We are out of the ordinary. We are a town of creative weirdos and I hope that we can keep it that way.”

What exactly did council approve?

At the meeting, council approved a resolution to guide the request for proposals for a contractor to run the BID. The BID vote passed 6-1, with only council member Kim Roney opposing. It sets the BID boundaries and establishes the tax rate. Council adopted the resolution along the same divide.

BIDs, or Municipal Service Districts, as defined by state statute, are a mechanism to supplement city services within a defined area. It will leverage an 8-cent tax (per $100 of assessed value) on downtown property owners to fund additional services for the city’s central business district. The BID is estimated to generated a $1.25 million budget, which will be approved annually by City Council. There are 66 BIDs with a “placemaking focus” in North Carolina, according to Jason Epley, executive director of the N.C. Downtown Development Association.

For some, it felt like a foregone conclusion that the vote would pass following the 5-1 approval in the first required vote a month earlier (council member Sheneika Smith was absent).

“When the initial vote passed … we kind of knew,” said Sarah Fiori, business administrator at Crafted Edge, a downtown shop home to local knife-makers, selling artisan-made kitchen ware. “It feels like a detriment at this point,” she said.

Attempts to get more involved with the process — or pursue eventual representation on the board that will guide the BID — have gone mostly unanswered, she said.

All nearly 20 public commenters at the June 11 meeting spoke in opposition to the BID. Concerns were similar to those heard throughout the process: displacement of the city’s homeless populations, uncertainty about what shape the BID would ultimately take, reluctance to see another unelected board wield taxpayer dollars and further “privatization” of public spaces.

Despite new parameters set in the resolution, speaker Barron Northrup said the unanswered problems within the proposal “compound.”

“The reason this resolution is wrong for the BID is because this BID is wrong for Asheville,” Northrup said.

Before the discussion, Mayor Esther Manheimer said members of the steering committee, which helped to build the proposal, along with the Chamber of Commerce and Asheville Downtown Association and other organizations, were in support but would not be there to speak after a committee member’s car was vandalized last week.

Where did the proposal come from?

The initial BID proposal was brought by the Asheville Downtown Association and Chamber of Commerce, with “clean and safe” the slogan at its center. The Chamber contracted with an outside firm, Progressive Urban Management Associates, to conduct a feasibility study and to prepare the statutorily required BID operational plan.

BID calls were amplified, and a feasibility study funded, in spring 2023, a time that also marked escalating outcry from downtown business owners around what many felt was increasing crime in downtown.

Asheville Police Department crime data, presented in January, said citywide crime fell from 2022 to 2023, with violent crime seeing an 18% decrease and property crime down 13%.

In an April 23 presentation to a council committee, APD reported numbers continue to drop, with citywide violent crime down 9% from Jan. 1 to March 31 compared to the same time last year, and property crime down 6%.

Zach Wallace, vice president of public policy with the Chamber, said the Chamber and ADA intend to jointly respond to the RFP request.

“We are appreciative of the positive vote and the final ordinance (and) resolution,” Wallace said in a June 12 email. “We put forth a proposal understanding that it was a starting point and believe that the final product reflects the goals that community stakeholders have expressed throughout this process.”

BID’s are a “proven tool,” he said, and one that “Asheville can now add to maintain and build upon the decades of investment and pride in a downtown that belongs to all of Western North Carolina.”

‘Window dressing’

The proposal’s first formal visit to City Council was a public hearing held in April. That’s where Susan Griffin first spoke out. She’s a downtown resident and a fierce proponent of the city’s last push for a Business Improvement District in 2012. Though the district was created, the effort eventually stalled for lack of funding. But this BID doesn’t have her support.

The biggest problem with the current proposal, she told the Citizen Times, is that it’s “top-down” rather than “bottom-up.”

“It’s being imposed on the community, not brought forth by the community, really,” she said. Griffin called it “window dressing,” and said without stronger baselines services, it won’t effect any change.

“This whole process has really ignored the needs of the people who are paying for this. By that I mean downtown residents and tenants who have no one to pass the costs onto,” she said.

The BID approval came the same night as that City Council passed its $250.9 million budget, which included a .63-cent property tax increase. Buncombe County’s proposed budget also includes a 5% property tax hike, or 2.55 cents.

“It’s a lot coming all at once,” Griffin said. “At some point, you’re making downtown very difficult to live in. When do we get a say?”

What does the resolution do?

The resolution was drafted by council member Maggie Ullman in the month since the initial vote. It was created with input from other council members and community stakeholders.

Much of it, she said, is intended to ensure “public accountability.” This means provisions that would ensure the BID service provider complies with all public record and open meetings laws.

It can be looked at as pressure washing and litter cleanup, she said, but also as having a more active presence downtown.

There’s people with boots on the ground you can connect with,” she said of the “dedicated unarmed Community Stewards,” or ambassadors, who the resolution said would receive anti-racist, mental health first-aid, de-escalation and equity training.

“Community Stewards will provide a highly visible presence; proactively engage with the public; provide directions and assistance; offer safety escorts on an on-call basis; and connect members of the unhoused community to resources like the Community Responders, Community Paramedics, homeless service providers, etc.,” the resolution said.

The original proposal floated a board weighted toward large property owners. The new resolution proposes a committee of 17 voting members to serve three-year terms:

  • 4 Commercial Property Owners
  • 4 Business Renters
  • 3 Residential Property Owners
  • 3 Residential Renters
  • 1 Representative from the Block, the historically Black business district.
  • 1 Representative from the Continuum of Care, a collaborative planning body leading the city’s response to homelessness.
  • 1 At-Large

Along with safety, hospitality and cleaning services, it names “special projects” among its services, including beautification, capital improvements, parking infrastructure and landscaping, Ullman said.

“To me, this is a way to complement existing services to support a weird and welcoming, clean and safe downtown,” she said. “By doing this, the BID gives the city dedicated funds to enhance downtown. And we’re doing that through public/private partnerships.”

And if it isn’t working? Council will be responsible for voting on both the tax rate and budget. The service provider will be required to report to council at least annually.

If the BID is not working out as well as we hoped, it could effectively be canceled by any future council,” council member Sage Turner said at the June 11 meeting. “I don’t want you all to think this is forever. There is going to be chances to alter this, to improve it, to grow upon it, whatever that may look like.”


HERE Asheville
Author: HERE Asheville