Days after Buncombe County announced it would send deputies to help the Asheville Police Department patrol downtown, the city announced a two-month plan to increase safety in the city’s downtown area.
Beginning May 1, the city’s “Downtown Safety Initiative” commits to increasing law enforcement foot, bike, and vehicle patrols downtown; launch a Community Responder Pilot Program led by the Asheville Fire Department to help people in crisis and treat drug overdoses; and focus attention on “general downtown cleanliness” with a maintenance plan to remove litter, discarded drug syringes and needles, and human waste from streets and parks.
The plan also includes increased monitoring at public parking garages; a crackdown on illegally parked cars; graffiti removal; streetlight outage maintenance; and a general effort to find places where public safety concerns are at their highest.
Margaret Lancaster, owner of Dog and Pony Show on Haywood Street, described in Part One of Asheville Watchdog’s series, “Down Town,” brazen thefts from her store on Haywood Street, finding people asleep in her alcove, and discovering remnants of a fire in her entryway that had been extinguished with urine.
“When I shared with Asheville Watchdog months ago what was happening in my own small business and to others around me, it came from a place of desperation,” Lancaster said. The safety plan that “has come together, with so many in the community being part of making downtown safer and cleaner, makes my heart so full. We’re all in, and looking forward to partnering with our neighbors and the city to making downtown the most welcoming place it can be for locals and tourists to enjoy.”
City Council member Sage Turner said that not only has the police department been operating at a reduced capacity, “our public works department has also been down 50 to 60 percent.”
“We just haven’t been able to keep up with it,” Turner said. “Layer in that there seems to be a new mental health crisis. We need more folks, more feet on the ground … just to even get back to a state of balance, safety and cleanliness.”
Turner said the downtown safety plan is a result of concerns raised by downtown businesses, residents and the community.
“It’s been talked about more and more,” Turner said. “I think we have to give Asheville Watchdog credit here, too. I think the light and the megaphone you have put on some of these issues has been incredible and has brought so much awareness to the community.”
“What you have done has helped save our downtown,” she said.
Police Presence Already Noticed
Beth Stickle, owner of the Bloomin’ Art gift shop on Haywood Street, has been in business for 37 years and downtown for 45. She said she had noticed an increase in aggressive behavior, homelessness and crime downtown in the past two years, including drug use in the parking garage across the street. She used to park her van there until all four tires were slashed.
So Stickle was happy to hear about the initiative Thursday afternoon, although she said she has questions, including whether the program will continue after 60 days and if it will cause a reduction of police coverage in other parts of town — which Asheville Police Chief David Zack said Thursday would not happen.
“I believe it’s going to work, and I’m very grateful that it’s happening downtown,” Stickle said. “But I always like to be part of the discussion of the unintended consequences.”
Stickle said that since Asheville Watchdog highlighted the downtown’s problems earlier this year, she’s noticed an increased police presence.
“I’ve seen [police officers] in the parking garage, I’ve seen them on foot, I’ve seen them in car patrols — much more than I’ve seen in the last two or three years,” Stickle said. “So, it has made a big difference. We’ve all been talking about how grateful we are to see them and the difference that it’s made in behavior issues.”
Still, Stickle said, she will not park in the Civic Center Parking Garage again until it’s equipped with surveillance cameras.
Samantha Booth, an Asheville Police Department spokeswoman, said there will be more APD officers downtown as part of the city initiative, but she could not immediately say how many. “As for the number of officers that we will be increasing downtown, that is something we are still in the process of determining operations planning,” Booth said.
Currently only two units patrol the downtown area. They can call for backup if needed.
“Disturbing Trend” of Increased Crime Downtown
The announcement of the “Downtown Safety Initiative” came via a press release from the city, and was discussed by council members, Zack, and Fire Department leadership Thursday during a City Council agenda briefing.
“Over the last couple of months, we’ve heard a lot about crime and people not feeling safe in Asheville, especially in downtown,” City Manager Debra Campbell said during the agenda meeting.
The press release said the plan was being rolled out “(d)ue to a number of incidents impacting public safety,” noting a rise in downtown crime.
“There are complex circumstances contributing to the safety issues that Asheville is currently seeing downtown and it will take a community response to address these complexities,” the release stated. “Multiple City departments are coordinating a City government response and we also need participation from community leaders and partners to address all the factors contributing to the rise in crime.”
During the meeting and in the release, Zack emphasized that the increased police focus on downtown did not mean that the APD cared any less about other parts of the city.
“Our efforts in downtown should in no way suggest that we aren’t focused on safety across the entire community,” Zack said. “This intensive effort is driven by data that suggests a disturbing trend of increases in both property and violent crime in our downtown.”
According to the police department, downtown Asheville has seen a 27 percent increase in property crimes over the past three years. The downtown district continues to experience one of the highest concentrations of violent crime in the city, with 10 percent of the city’s violent crime occurring within an area that covers less than 0.5 square miles.
According to a website created for the initiative, after the two-month project is complete, city staff “will assess whether or not our actions are having an impact on downtown safety and determine next steps to support a safer downtown and city as a whole.”
“A Complex Problem”
Reached for comment, Mayor Esther Manheimer referred to her comments during the agenda meeting.
“We are really facing a complex problem and it takes time to figure out how to best address it,” Manheimer said. “I recognize that the community can sometimes feel like it’s not happening fast enough and folks are impatient … But I’m very thankful that this is coming together, and having seen new things tried, I’m expecting that we’ll have some outcomes that are positive, some that we think need to be changed or tweaked.”
Bill Burton, who has lived in the Grove Arcade nearly three years, said he doesn’t feel unsafe downtown but appreciates the city’s efforts.
“That’s all really great, I couldn’t have written a better perspective,” he said. “But I think The Watchdog pretty much told the city that’s what they needed to do … Your reporting, which has been very objective, and complex, complete, had to make a difference in the way they’re thinking in City Hall.”
Chris Faber, owner of the Times Bar in downtown, said he had taken to spending nights in his bar in January after multiple break-ins, thefts, and vandalism. Like Stickle, Faber said the city’s initiative sounded great, although he said he hopes they can find the resources to sustain the effort.
“I mean, that to me sounds like a list of pretty much all of the things that we’ve all been voicing concerns about,” Faber said. “I don’t know where they’re getting the manpower. That sounds like a lot of lofty goals for the understaffing we have.”
He and Stickle noted that the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office’s recent decision to help Asheville by supplying deputies for downtown coverage on weekend nights for the next month should help considerably.
Stickle said she’s also noticed more unity from downtown business owners and workers about addressing the problems, whether it’s concerns about safety issues, cleanliness, or policing.
“For the first time, I’ve seen people all on the same page of what the outcome needs to be,” Stickle said. “Everybody has some different ideas about how to approach it, but everybody is ready to do whatever it takes to get us to a particular point, which is getting our downtown back.”
Business owners and city and county leaders convened early March at a Chamber of Commerce gathering to provide narratives on how downtown crime had affected their employees and businesses.
Zach Wallace, the chamber’s vice president of public policy, told Asheville Watchdog there is hope the initiative will work.
“We are hopeful that these efforts are successful in addressing the disturbing rise in crime that our downtown has felt, thankful for the work of all involved, and look forward to continued partnership across the community on efforts like this,” Wallace said.
Poll: Majority Downtown Feel Unsafe at Night
A new Asheville Downtown Association survey of 199 people — 122 of whom were downtown business owners or employees and 48 of whom were downtown residents or property owners — provided a snapshot on current downtown sentiments.
The survey respondents ranked “Reducing homelessness, providing more access to resources/outreach.”as their “most serious concern.” The second-highest ranked concern was “safety, reducing criminal activity.”
More than three-fourths of the survey respondents said they had staff or customers express concerns about feeling safe downtown. According to the survey, 23 percent of respondents reported that they felt unsafe during the day while nearly 70 percent felt unsafe or very unsafe at night.
Nearly six of 10 downtown merchants, workers, and residents rated the city’s cleanliness as “unclean” or “very unclean,” while 31 percent of respondents were neutral.
Asheville officials asked for community participation during the initiative, encouraging people to call 9-1-1 for crimes in-progress, and 828-252-1110 for non-emergencies.
The city set up an email address, avldowntownsafetyinitiative@PublicInput.com, for people to “schedule a public safety assessment” or learn more information about the 60-day project.
“We have to remember why Asheville is on the map”
Nur Edwards, the second-generation owner of Asheville Discount Pharmacy downtown, said she was glad to see the city responding to downtown merchants after more than two years of growing problems.
“This is what we’ve been asking for, for a long time, and so I’m really happy to see it, some efforts being put into place,” Edwards said.
Like other downtown merchants, she said she hopes the city sustains the program past 60 days.
“We have to remember why Asheville is on the map, and it’s largely or in part because of downtown businesses,” Edwards said. “We have to take care of our downtown, and it has to be in a sustainable way, and I think that this is what we’ve been missing since COVID.”
Edwards said she thinks the lack of police presence, driven by shortages, as well as messaging from the police department that it would not respond to minor crimes in person, led some to believe “that you can come to downtown and do whatever you want because there’s a lack of law enforcement.”
“So, I hope we can kind of reverse that messaging, and then I do hope that it’s permanent,” Edwards said. “My hopes are in 60 days, we’ll see what a huge impact it’s made — and we’ll be going into full-force tourist season — and then they’ll realize that there’s no way for us to go back to how it’s been.”
William Dissen, owner of the Marketplace Restaurant on Wall Street for the past 14 years, said his business had been broken into, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage. He also had to close for nearly a week, he said.
“I think it’s great to see that our city government is listening to their constituents, citizens, and business and real estate owners to make change,” Dissen told Asheville Watchdog via text message. “If we want to keep a vibrant and safe city it’s imperative to address cleanliness and safety. Downtown has been at the epicenter of the issues and needs support, but support is needed across our community to help protect our people and our future.”
Watchdog reporters Sally Kestin and John Boyle contributed to this story.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Great story. But N Edward’s is wrong…Asheville was on the map way before it became “Weird”. But glad things are improving. Again Watchdog also has great and truthful stories.
Reducing the police presence in other areas means that the taxpayers of Asheville who live outside of the downtown will be more vulnerable to crime. Tourists are once again being put before the citizens of Asheville. It’s a free for all to steal when the police don’t get involved in crime that is under a certain dollar amount. That is until someone gets badly injured or killed during a home robbery.
The tourist lobby is so strong in the state that the Chamber cannot use more than 33% of what they receive in taxes for safety downtown. Shouldn’t they be the ones paying for extra security in the downtown since they are making the profit from it?
I couldn’t agree more with SH. I live in the long South strip of land which is part of The City of Asheville of Asheville. I pay city taxes. I rarely see police anymore. Garbage Collection, EMTs and Firemen, YES. They are great. However, individuals need police protection too. As it reads, it’s all about money and businesses who make money. Paying police women and men more, would certainly attract more to join the force.
As many have previously said: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating!”
Asheville Watchdog, thanks to your news articles, you have become the catalyst for getting the city to finally respond and do something about our downtown problems. Maybe I’ll go downtown again when I feel it is safe. If your team hadn’t written these articles, I wonder if the city would have even attempted to solve the issue. Thank you again and kudos to all the reporters!
So how are they going to address homelessness? If they make more arrests, are the jails and courts ready? How is the Fire Department going to address mental illness? Need more info on that. It all sounds good on the surface, but lots more details needed.
I noted in this story and in one of the other local media (CT or WLOS) that the Sherriff’s help for downtown will be on the weekends. So, if you’re a local taxpayer, you better go downtown on a weekend night when it’s totally crowded with tourists or take your chances downtown the other nights of the week when there’s no extra police presence. Is that what we pay city and county taxes for??
Exactly! The TDA should totally be footing the bill…Has anyone done the math to realize that paying cops $75/hour comes out to a rate of $150k/year? This is what we get for not raising the salaries and changing our methods of policing to attract the right people. Heck, Huntersville, NC has a starting salary of about $64k/year and they probably don’t have to squander so much on overtime pay.
Why doesn’t the Asheville Chamber of Commerce do a better job of supporting its members? Must we all rely on the Asheville Visitor’s Bureau to keep Asheville in the top 10 lists across the US and help solve the problems?
I am glad that the city has finally decided to do their jobs. this “initiative” is nothing more than what they were supposed to be doing all along. sad that it took a series from the watch dog for leaders to realize their is a problem downtown that everyone else but them seems to know about .
Until our local ‘leaders’ do something very courageous and perhaps counter-intuitive and put ‘residents first’, they’re just going to continue lurching from one crisis to the next, wasting millions and millions of dollars. First we’re taxed for affordable housing to prop up the tourism industry, then we’re taxed to prop up the Tourists and now we’re going to be taxed to safeguard the tourism industry that is largely responsible for the ‘affordable’ housing crisis. And don’t even get me started on the millions of dollars wasted on the Vance Monument debacle, or wiping out an 80-acre forest next to Asheville’s largest park just when we need to safeguard such spaces…
Is Asheville not a part of Buncombe County?
Recently four elders were on a downtown bridge legally holding a banner. Four APD police cars showed up to see what they were doing, who they were; two officers remained there for some time, chatting up the elders. So what? These officers weren’t needed elsewhere in the city, where there are armed robbers holding up people leaving restaurants? I’m encouraged by these measures, but let’s be sure our police officers are being employed effectively and assigned where they are really needed.
Asheville has achieved a reputation among those outside of the city as being very unsafe. That’s tourism affected and seems to me that all the tourism dollars that have been created should be carrying out these duties instead of the city.
Know many city residents? The “unsafe reputation” seems to be very prevalent among the city residents that I speak with, including me, as much as “those outside the city”. A lot of locals won’t visit downtown anymore, day or night. I certainly agree that the tourism dollars that are generated by motel/hotel taxes should be spent on something other than attracting more tourists. But it isn’t going to happen as long as a board that has no responsibility to taxpayers makes the decisions on where the money is spent!
Exactly and that’s why we should let downtown go straight to hell and tourism with it…then the TDA would wake up and find a way to help.
Good move. But…we are again confronting a complex problem which has been allowed to become a crisis. Same with the Christmas water crisis. When are we going to elect and hire leadership that has the foresight to anticipate the possibility of situations becoming crises and act before they get out of hand? I have been hearing about open City employee positions (outside the APD) for about a year. Councilwoman Turner’s comment is the first time I’ve heard it acknowledged publicly. Where’s the leadership in the Pink Palace? It’s something of a collective issue in regard to Council, but what about the City Manager? She is charged with running the City day-to-day. During the Christmas water crisis, why wasn’t the City Manager out front taking questions from the press instead of the Mayor? I hope the downtown initiative works. But I am concerned about long-term City policy. And we don’t need another consultant to tell us what’s wrong.
What they need to do is hire a consultant to tell them what’s wrong with all the consultants they’ve hired. I am willing to be that consultant.
You’re right Mike.
Spent Friday evening in downtown Greenville SC. The streets were wonderfully inviting; no feces, needles, panhandlers, overdoses, or graffiti to be seen. Landscaping was neatly trimmed, no grass or weeds growing in the cracks of sidewalks. There were public restrooms! yes! that were clean and stocked with necessities. Crowds of people were everywhere, enjoying the evening. Maybe we could send a study group down the mountain, to see how they are doing what Asheville appears to be unable to manage.
Greenville also has much more reasonable and resident-friendly noise ordinances. They’re not completely whoring out their city to tourists and visiting partygoers, keeping essential workers and children up late at night…
Asheville has a new noise ordinance, but it doesn’t seem to be enforced.
One of the biggest offenders is Salvage Station. They blatantly ignore the rules with music blaring past 11pm on week nights…The Noise People know this and do nothing.
Although on a smaller scale, Asheville could benefit from a program similar to Cleveland OH’s “Downtown Ambassadors.” It’s a group funded by downtown businesses with additional grant money (so businesses are stakeholders through their wallets). There are two types of ambassadors: visitor concierge (helping people on the street with information, directions, etc); and the “watchers” who have two-way radioes connected to police, who can be summoned to problems or issues immediately. This presence is very visual with their vests and hats. If we can’t have greater REAL police presence walking the very SMALL BEAT of our downtown, this type of presence surely would be both helpful and a deterrent.
I’ve been advocating for such a thing for years, along with embracing Japan’s Koban style of policing to help build relationships and trust in the community…this would not only increase police presence, but put the right type of solution in the right areas (and possibly even be a draw for new recruits looking to change the narrative on police work).
I’ve lived in East Asheville for over 60 years and have never seen it like this. My concern is that the problems are being or will be pushed further into other parts of the city away from downtown. Concerned about how things are going to be once units in Days Inn are filled. I’m seriously thinking about moving away from Asheville. Breaks my heart that I don’t feel safe in my city and neighborhood anymore. I use to love downtown and I avoid it now. Hope this plan helps downtown and all parts of the city eventually. I believe that our sweet city is being destroyed. I’m greatful that we are acknowledging the problems and hopefully finding real and consistent solutions to the problems.
all members of city council should have to read JM’s comments.
Comments are closed.