An Asheville Fire Department response vehicle drives through the city’s downtown. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

The public conversation about Asheville’s downtown has changed a lot in the last three months.

Through our 12-part Down Town investigative series, which ran from late February to the end of May, Asheville Watchdog highlighted the effects of a depleted police department on downtown safety, the frustrations of merchants overwhelmed by crime and a justice system that often operates as a revolving door.

We examined the instability caused by what many described as a weak city manager, the lack of affordable housing and how it perpetuates homelessness, and the increase in substance abuse and its effect on those without homes.

The series focused on solutions that have worked for cities across the nation, from Alexandria, Va.,, to Tucson, Ariz.: a mental health crisis center, a jail diversion program, downtown social worker and police response teams, a tax that goes toward homeless services, a by-name list of people without homes, a sharper focus on affordable housing.

Since the series’ launch, Asheville has taken steps toward a cleaner, safer downtown. It’s taken a broader look at major needs like expanded mental health response systems, homelessness and affordable housing.

While the city hasn’t made long-term commitments, it did work with its fire department and the county to launch pilot programs that added more police and deputies on downtown patrols and more firefighters dedicated to crisis intervention.

Asheville Watchdog recently surveyed each Asheville City Council member and Buncombe County commissioner for responses to the series and their plans for long-term solutions.

Some called for more tourism dollars to be spent on resident-focused projects. Some called for expansion of the mental health community response teams. Some want to push the creation of a low-barrier shelter. All agreed there was a need to expand affordable housing.

But working together on solutions hasn’t always proved easy, according to staff, elected officials and law enforcement. The Watchdog reported this week on difficulties city and county law enforcement encountered when they tried to pair up to increase downtown patrols, for example.

“I think it’s been a learning adventure for everyone,” said Asheville City Council member Sage Turner. “I don’t think the community had a broad understanding of the complexity of the situation, so I’m really thankful that the series happened and was so exhaustive. But I think it’s time for us to take action.”

The City Council’s response

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said via email that the series “captures the complexity of the challenges and the systems trying to address” downtown problems.”

Manheimer said opening a new low-barrier shelter – one that accepts people with few restrictions regarding drug and alcohol use — must be a top priority. 

She also supports public outreach teams to address problems downtown and a proposal for a Business Improvement District [BID] special tax district downtown. And she said the inability of local governments to access the nearly $40 million annual budget of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to pay for homeless or safety services “has become something of a crisis for our Community.”

She noted that the city and other entities worked hard to lobby the legislature to change the disbursement formula for the occupancy tax last year.

Previously, 75 percent of the tax had to go to marketing and promotion of the area and 25 percent went to the Tourism Product Development Fund, which offers grants for economic development projects ranging from zip lines to local theaters. The new law changed that formula to a 2:1 split.

Manheimer said she supports the TDA using funds for affordable housing, as service workers have requested. 

Manheimer said she also backs the Chamber of Commerce leading the charge to “re-energize the conversation” on the possible creation of a Business Improvement District, which could help provide additional services downtown. She also supports a jail diversion program for the mentally ill, although “there needs to be state funding and support.”

Council member Kim Roney said she was glad the series’ final three stories focused on mental health and housing. She wants more conversation around short-term rentals and their impact on a lack of housing and the economy.

Downtown visitors relax at Pritchard Park // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

She noted a growing community push to get more occupancy taxes to “address some of these root causes,” specifically affordable housing.

Asked if she thought there should be another legislative change addressing the current allocation between tourism advertising and infrastructure projects, Roney said she wanted to see a “strong, coordinated voice” asking lawmakers to invest in everyone’s well being, especially housing for “workers that uphold the [tourism] industry.”

Kim Roney // Credit: City of Asheville

Turner said better coordination among the homeless providers is “imperative.”

“I did not understand how discombobulating all of the different sects were,” she said. “Until we all agree on how to handle this as a community, we will continue to see agencies battling for the same dollars, battling for their particular method of care.”

Turner said an urgent need is “rapid rehousing,” which provides funds to quickly move people who lost housing back into homes.

Turner said a solution may be a “low-barrier” shelter with few restrictions, such as not requiring sobriety. 

“I don’t think we know quite yet, but we’re getting really close, and it needs to be our next big move, in my opinion,” Turner said.

Sage Turner // Credit: City of Asheville

Within the next year, Turner said Asheville will have 198 new housing units for chronically homeless people, and several new housing projects completed that will include affordable units. The Down Town series’ emphasis on affordable housing also resonated with councilwoman Antanette Mosley.

Mosley serves on the Housing and Community Development Committee and is council liaison to the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, the public housing entity.

Mosley is interested in the city allowing higher density housing and exploring incentives to owners of existing rental property for providing housing that meets affordability standards.   

Antanette Mosley // Credit: City of Asheville

Rules for Airbnb and short-term rental properties should be tightened to ensure more long-term rentals are available, Mosley said. She’d like to see the city explore the possibility of issuing more affordable housing bonds and wants to see more cooperation between the city and county.

Regarding a lack of coordination between nonprofits and agencies working on homelessness, Mosley said she favors a lead entity taking charge. She approaches the idea of a low-barrier shelter cautiously, saying she doesn’t know what one run by the city would look like. 

In general, Mosley said, she would support TDA dollars going to affordable housing.

Buncombe commissioners’ response

“I appreciate that AVL Watchdog is working to provide a deep dive into challenging community issues,” Commissioner Terri Wells said. “As a community, we must take a comprehensive approach to address these challenges, and I welcome all partners, including Dogwood Health Trust and the TDA, to the table as we work together to create a shared vision and thriving future for our community.”

Commission Chairman Brownie Newman said the series was “timely” and “positive” and spoke to topics the community was interested in.

Parker Sloan // Credit: Buncombe County

 “I was specifically struck by Part 12 of your series,” said Commissioner Parker Sloan, who is also a member of Buncombe’s affordable housing subcommittee. “Homelessness is a housing problem and there are examples of communities across the country and the world who have changed course and the common denominator among those communities is their housing first strategies and commitment to homelessness as a housing problem.”

Most commissioners stressed the importance of countywide mental health response measures. Buncombe has spearheaded an effort to establish and expand a community paramedic program, dedicating a first-responder team to take mental health and substance-use calls with a focus on helping people instead of arresting them or  taking them to an emergency room.

“Buncombe County EMS and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department have been working diligently to expand co-response in our community and Commission continues to invest in assuring that our teams are properly resourced, well equipped and trained to respond to the increased mental health challenges in our community,” Commissioner Martin Moore said when asked if Asheville should adopt a co-responder model similar to the one used in Alexandria.

Shoppers on Haywood Street and Battery Park in downtown Asheville // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara said Buncombe needed to “continue expanding crisis response services, including adding more hours to 356 Biltmore [RHA Health Services crisis care center] and creating a low-barrier shelter that is open 24/7 and 365/year.”

City and county leaders are talking about new shelter space and Newman said there is “broad agreement” that it should be a low-barrier model. Newman said he thinks that will happen soon.

Asked about how the county is managing substance abuse recovery programs, Newman pointed to the medical assisted treatment (MAT) program inside Buncombe County Detention Center focused on helping detainees pull through from opioid addiction with medication while incarcerated and then setting them on a path toward recovery after they exit the system.

Buncombe commissioners expressed enthusiasm for a buildout of affordable housing, something they have committed to in public as well.

Brownie Newman // Credit: Buncombe County

“In our budget this year,” Newman said, “we will be investing over $13 million of that $40 million [bond] that was approved by voters to support additional significant affordable housing developments in Asheville and Buncombe County.”

Newman noted specifically a plan to dedicate downtown, county-owned lots to affordable housing. A feasibility study of that effort is underway.

Commissioner Amanda Edwards, a member of the affordable housing subcommittee, pointed to the repercussions a lack of affordable housing has on individuals.

“There are not enough affordable housing options in Buncombe County and it is taking its toll on children and families and our economy,” Edwards said.

Sloan emphasized the crucial importance of housing.

“There are plenty of examples where law enforcement is needed to address incidents in downtown involving the unhoused,” Sloan said. “But by and large this is not is not an issue for law enforcement in general or APD specifically to address. That cannot be emphasized enough. … housing scarcity is the biggest problem facing Asheville and Buncombe County.” 

Commissioners said they support putting Tourism Development Authority funds from hotel occupancy taxes toward housing.

“Given this moment in our history it has become abundantly clear that the majority of the occupancy tax dollars collected should be spent on housing and human infrastructure like education or public health,” Sloan said.

Tourism Development Authority’s perspective

Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority President and CEO Victoria “Vic” Isley said she’s noticed improvements since the city’s 60-day downtown initiative was launched but more work needs to be done.

“A safe and clean community should be the norm,” Isley said via email. “We encourage the city to extend the efforts beyond the pilot program to create a long-term strategy built on partnerships to help sustain the initiatives currently underway.”

Isley said the lodging tax is “not a cure-all,” and noted that the state legislates its use. 

Isley said  the investments made with the occupancy tax are aimed at growing the local economy and noted  that the tax pays for 100 percent of community marketing and capital project investment, while “69% of visitor spending takes place outside of lodging businesses in area restaurants, retail, entertainment, art galleries and outdoor outfitters.”

Downtown Asheville at the intersection of Haywood Street and Battery Park Avenue Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

Isley said owners of tourism businesses pay taxes and generate sales taxes, revenues that help the city and county operate.

“As a growing community, if the city and county or we as residents want to provide or request increased services, we should collectively evaluate what tools are available within our state to do so,” Isley said. “Implementing a Business Improvement District is one way to provide additive services to community areas.”

Isley also pointed out that some other counties in North Carolina, including Wake and Mecklenburg, have a prepared food and beverage tax that can generate substantial funds.

“Property tax is another lever that is within the control of local officials,” Isley said. 

Isley also noted that the TDA has disbursed $60 million via the Tourism Product Development Fund to community capital projects. 

The TDA also has a new fund, called the Legacy Investment from Tourism, or LIFT, that will go into place later this year. 

“It’s too early to tell what specific projects will be put forward,” Isley said. “We project there may be about $10 million available in this fund by time of award next spring.”

Downtown workers and progressive groups are calling on the TDA to take its new freedom to invest in a wider array of community projects and concentrate on affordable housing.

Jen Hampton, chair of self-described “worker-led coalition” Asheville Food and Beverage United group, said some downtown employees are teetering on the edge of homelessness.

“I can’t even believe how many people I’ve spoken to about this who said their landlords raise their rent so much that they have to leave,” Hampton said. 

Asheville service workers and others held a rally outside the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority board meeting May 31, urging the TDA to fund affordable housing. // Credit: Jen Hampton

Hampton and more than 2,300 others have signed a petition requesting two things: Use newly available tourism dollars to support affordable housing for service workers, and put service workers on the committee that will decide how the funds are distributed. The petition was presented to the TDA at its May 31 meeting.

The view of business owners

Several business owners said they’ve seen improvement in downtown in recent months, which they attribute in part to an increased police and first responder presence.

“I’m not saying I want a police state in our city, by no means,” said William Dissen, owner of the Marketplace Restaurant on Wall Street. “But I think having a presence is important. It’s like being around your teacher when you’re in grade school, right? You mind your P’s and Q’s when the teacher or the principal walk by.”

Earlier this year, Dissen sustained a $40,000 loss when a man broke in, stole items and caused so much damage the restaurant had to close for several days. 

“I feel like it feels super safe again,” Dissen said. “The heightened police presence during this period, that the city and the county have added, I think is very important.”

At The Times Bar & Coffee Shop on Patton Avenue near Pritchard Park, owner Chris Faber said he’s seen a “marked improvement” downtown over the past two months. 

During the winter, Faber had been sleeping in his bar overnight to stem a tide of break-ins. Like many other downtown workers, he’d also noticed an increase in people sleeping in doorways and aggressive behavior.

“The population is still around town and all that, but the amount of camping and the open air stuff that has been going on has been drastically improved,” Faber said, praising the city’s 60-day initiative to improve downtown. “It’s been really nice, but now the second step as this program comes to an end is, ‘Does it translate? Does it remain better, or do we slide back?’”

Diners enjoy a meal in downtown Asheville // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

Faber wants to see an increased presence of city workers downtown, although he says it doesn’t have to strictly be police, and he’s not interested in seeing “police sweeps” of homeless people.

Cops can’t fix all these problems, Faber said. 

The city, he contended, simply let downtown’s problems get too far out of hand before addressing them.

Faber and Dissen said they support the idea of a Business Improvement District, as long as the taxes go to extra safety and cleanliness efforts downtown.

Beth Stickle, owner of the Bloomin’ Art gift shop on Haywood Street, said late last year that  downtown had changed — it was rougher, meaner, dirtier. By May, she said, she was seeing more police than she had in four or five years.

“I absolutely have seen improvements in the Pritchard Park area — general cleanliness, less negative behavior, meaning drug use and that kind of thing,” Stickle said. “However – and this was my big concern when this project started — (that) we were not really addressing the issue and how to correct or change it, but we were going to move them (the homeless) on.”

While the improvements downtown have been noticeable, Stickle said problems remain. She mentioned a man who was having a mental health crisis outside of the Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville on a day when hundreds of students and their families were downtown for graduation. 

On a recent weekend, Stickle said, a group of locals took refuge in her shop because they were worried about troubling activity in front of the center. Stickle says while tourism is important to Asheville, safety trumps that any day.

Stickle also wants to see the city take a long view on downtown improvements.

“I don’t want to see Band-Aids put on it, because I feel like Band-Aiding is what we’ve been doing for the last 10 or 15 years,” Stickle said.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. Andrew R. Jones is a Watchdog investigative reporter. Email John Boyle has been covering western North Carolina since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at jboyle@avlwatchdog.orgSally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email . 

24 replies on “Asheville, Buncombe leaders vow changes in wake of Down Town series. What are the next steps?”

  1. Thanks so much for this very informative series and for creating the spark that has brought so many issues, ideas, and people to the table. Hopefully, going forward there will be comensurate action/solutions.

  2. This reads as if the Watchdog has been sucked in by the liberal left agenda of the current city & county politicians which caused this catastrophe in the first place!

    1. Gail, I must disagree with your comment. Our reporters have meticulously reported on the myriad issues facing downtown and examined potential solutions. We then followed up with city and county officials to see what steps they are considering. I fail to see how this plays into any agenda.

    2. I disagree as well. Almost every paragraph starts with a sentence containing “Someone said”. The article discusses what people have said and done. What parts do you feel are stating an opinion?

    3. Gail,

      These same problems are being experienced in many cities all over the country, managed by both conservative and liberal governments. We here in Asheville are not unique in any way.

  3. Re. a low-barrier shelter: I invite you all to visit a very large low-barrier homeless shelter with services in Des Moines, Iowa where I’ve recently relocated. As a volunteer at the Central Iowa Shelter and Services in downtown DM, I have been absolutely impressed with its management, the staff’s respectful yet firm communication with residents, the ability of residents to respect others’ space and privacy, acceptance and appreciation from staff and residents for volunteers. I would expect that when problems arise, they are handled swiftly and well. I’ve no doubt that management and staff would find the time to talk with you and show you the facility.

  4. A terrific series laying out the problems facing the city. From the comments, one wonders if anyone on the city council and the mayor had even read the 11 articles. And where was Debra Campbell in the discussion? In other words it’s still all “jaw, jaw, jaw., talk, talk” from City Hall. As for using TDA funds to help the homeless, I suppose getting the riff-raff and druggies off the streets will make the city more attractive, but good luck with that. If I were on the TDA, I would ask, “Why did Asheville spend vast sums to tear down the Vance Monument, shrink Merrimon Avenue, and allot money for reparations instead of building affordable housing?”

  5. i have been following this story closely. i live in buncombe ( but outside city limits ). whether it is true or a perception, i feel that down town is unsafe. this started only a couple of yrs. ago or so. before that my wife and i enjoyed the quirkiness of the crowds and the local street talent was awesome. now let’s Flash foward to tomorrow morning ( 6/13 ) . My wife might have jury duty in the buncombe court house. If she does, I plan on escorting her to the courthouse doors, and sitting on a bench watching the exit until she comes out. I will do this everyday, until her service is completed. I feel this is necessary, even though she is in a safe building. it is the walk to and from her car that worries me the most. If this is what i feel is a necessary step to take, than our local elected leaders have failed us in making us feel safe. I hope they take this series of the AVL watchdog seriously.

  6. Thank you AWD for posting the Council’s and the Commissioner’s response to your detailed and realistic series of what is happening and potential solutions.

    And yet, with all the data and better solutions offered, it seems that the #1 priority is a low barrier shelter? The Ramada was an abysmal failure. There was no discussion of continued police presence by any of our leaders. Apparently they all think it’s a good idea that businesses can pay an additional tax for what should already be provided.

    We must, must find new leaders.

  7. Is it just me, or does it seem the electeds are mouthing politically correct platitudes without ever giving full bore commitment to doing the hard stuff? The city has bent over backwards to coddle the chronically homeless in whatever behaviour they choose, and that alone should cost them their jobs. Deboorah especially seems to have been given a free pass from responsibility. Perhaps the city and county are quietly agreeing to pass the buck back and forth until they’ve all moved on in hopes future leaders will finally do what’s politically difficult but necessary-make life unpleasant for the bums until they leave.

    1. I agree 100%. Until the options here are unpleasant enough the vagrants will continue to come. We are working very hard to grow the population. From the quotes in this article from the elected officials it won’t be any time soon.

  8. AWD report & most comments excludes diversity of black AVL into the biz community. Yeah lotta $$ & heavy APD presence will calm many down to please biz & tourists temporarily. Complex social matters will remain. However, Alexandria, VA appears potent ‘ cause entire community involved with minimal law enforcement. Political will still absent for real change..How many more $$$ will be spent on external consulting?

  9. I see the headline reads that buncombe and asheville leaders vow changes. as a voter i think that i will also vow to CHANGE some things on my voting ballot next time out.

  10. This Watchdog article is certainly leaning very left.
    True journalism is supposed to be unbiased.
    The platitudes offered by the city and county officials completely overlooks the core issue. Poor leadership that act and talk like politicians rather than having tax paying citizens safety and welfare into account. They are too busy listening to protesters from out of state to listen to the full time residents and taxpayers.

    1. Jane,

      I disagree with your assessment of the article. Over three months, we meticulously reported on the serious challenges facing downtown and explored potential solutions. We canvassed all city and county officials to get a sense of what they think the next steps will be and let our readers know that information. We will be following this story and what steps are taken.

  11. The liberal infestation of Asheville has all but destroyed what was once a great town. This isn’t the first city they’ve destroyed. Wake up people before this plague engulfs our once great nation.

  12. These are all interesting, positive comments. Our city and county leaders seem to agree on the array of problems we have identified. So now, don’t you think it’s time for them to create a public to-do list and start doing?

    1. We credit the source of the picture. Sometimes that is the person who took it. In this case it is the person who provided it to us.

  13. I have been homeless in Asheville going on 5 years this month and have never been offered a safe housing alternative sure there are some limited services available but you have to deal with an unsafe environment to get them been that way for as long as I’ve been in Asheville

    1. Stix, you do not mention where you came from before 5 yrs. ago. are you a WNC native, or did you come here through word of mouth from another city/state? I mean no disrespect, I truly want to know since we are told of local born homeless but I have still not met any personally. stay well.

      1. Joe, I am not sure where Stix came from. Stix may be a native or not.

        I can vouch for the fact that some people who have been homeless for years here are natives. Joe, I hope you get to meet some of these people so that they can tell you their stories.

  14. Severe mental illness is a cause of homelessness not the other way around. Seems like almost every official is talking about low barrier shelters and affordable housing and using EMT’s trained in crisis intervention will fix everything. NO it will not. It will help folks who live and work here which is good but will not fix the crime and disorderly (not good neighborly conduct) of so many people down town. Long term treatment is needed. Same for everything else. Address the root cause. Do not make simple statements that make no sense and spend money and effort on things that will not work.

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