Asheville’s downtown initiative went from an experiment to an established program after its initial 60-day phase ended June 30, but some are still asking “what’s next?”
At a Downtown Commission meeting Friday, Assistant City Manager Rachel Wood recapped a brief the city released on the initiative two weeks ago and addressed questions.
Commission chair Bryan Moffitt asked if any parts of the program would be discontinued.
“Nothing has essentially stopped,” Wood said.
“It’s an ongoing learning process,” added Dana Frankel, who led the team of city staff that organized and executed the initiative. “There’s adjustment as we go but, no, I wouldn’t say there’s anything that was happening and then has just stopped.”
According to the three-page brief, the city will continue increased Asheville Police Department presence, an Asheville Fire Department-led community responder pilot program, lighting improvements, noise and zoning enforcement, and a “commitment to addressing homelessness.”
The efforts to make downtown cleaner and safer involve multiple city departments and nonprofits, and coordination is not always seamless.
Eva-Michelle Spicer, Downtown Commission member and co-owner of Spicer Greene Jewelers downtown, recounted an incident recently of someone vandalizing the back of her building with graffiti “during the day at the very time that one of the fire department … responders was in our store asking us ‘So how do you think it’s going?’” Spicer said. “Our manager was out back addressing this graffiti issue saying ‘Hey, stop it. I don’t want to clean that up. Please stop.’ And then the community responders came out to talk to him and they were like, ‘Oh, this is more than we can handle,’ and left. There was no phone call to APD or the sheriff.”
TJ Fortenberry, AFD’s community responder supervisor, responded to Spicer. “Hate to hear your story about that dispatcher,” he said “We’re learning every day.” Then he told a story of his own.
His crew was responding to calls recently when they found someone breaking into a car in a parking deck downtown.
“They confronted him,” Fortenberry said. “We don’t carry weapons, we don’t arrest. . . the guy took off. We chased him around for 15 minutes. We were able to get a hold of APD. APD was right on it. They were able to arrest this man. He obviously had done this a lot. So we’ve seen crime but we’ve seen a lot of good.”
Fortenberry said his teams’ phone is constantly ringing with calls from business owners asking for help. “We’re there every chance we get.”
Some perceptions of downton are improving, according to a 117-person survey of mostly business owners and employees taken by the Asheville Downtown Association near the end of the initiative.
The No. 1 concern of respondents was safety and reducing crime, a shift from the same survey taken before the initiative that identified reducing homelessness as the top concern.
A higher percentage of participants said the city was cleaner and that they feel safe during the daytime, though fewer people said they feel safe downtown at night.
Several people who spoke at the meeting, including members of a group called the Coalition for Public Safety, raised concerns about the area around AHOPE Day Center on North Ann Street, a day shelter that provides services to people experiencing homelessness.
“AHOPE has had incredible problems in the last three years,” said Honor Moor, founder and co-chair of the Coalition. “My husband’s business moved away from Ann Street. It started happening basically in the last three years. They were pretty contained for most of that time. … But it got bad and it hasn’t really gotten better.”
Jan Davis, a business owner and former city council member, described an arson at his tire store on Patton Avenue near AHOPE in April. Davis described his concerns about the day shelter and its location near the economic heart of Asheville in Part 8 of Asheville Watchdog’s Down Town series.
“The reality is that area is still blighted,” Davis said at the meeting. “It still hurts, even with a greater police presence. It’s better, but unfortunately, and I have great compassion for homeless or unhoused people, but the reality is there’s probably about 100 people that are not seeking housing. That’s not what they’re about.”
He called the area an “open-air drug market” and said people did things on the sidewalks that “you wouldn’t want your family to see.”
Marcus Laws, homeless services director at Homeward Bound, the nonprofit that runs AHOPE, said the agency is aware of the concerns and working to address them.
“To everybody’s concerns, we do not condone any of those behaviors,” Laws said. “I’m working with (Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee) right now on multiple resolutions to limit the amount of people that we are seeing at AHOPE, to limit the hours, to have more targeted interventions, because we do understand that it’s an issue.”
He said he personally goes up and down the street with staff to clean up trash and try to prevent people from using drugs and said he isn’t shying away from the problem.
“Some of the central things that happen when we’re trying to address issues with homelessness is that the community is always involved,” Laws said. “They always have a voice and it’s not about blaming or complaining. It’s about us getting together and fixing it.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Andrew R. Jones is a Watchdog investigative reporter. Email email@example.com.