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.”
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.