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AVL Watchdog

Local Boutiques Struggle to Survive

Judith Oster in front of her store Caravans in the Grove Arcade.

While every small business is suffering due to the coronavirus lockdown, Asheville’s boutique apparel stores face their own financial and operational challenges. 

In an industry that relies on foot traffic, they must adapt to remote operations to weather the state-mandated closure of their brick-and-mortar locations.

The downtown area – the crown jewel of Asheville’s tourism industry – is not only feeling the financial ramifications; it’s facing an identity crisis as well. Its image is quirky, independent and small. Of the 222 businesses that responded to a 2018 survey of the Asheville Downtown Association, 116 said they employed fewer than 10 staff members, according to Meghan Rogers, executive director. 

“We are the foundation, we’re the image, we’re what you get, the mom and pop [shops],” said Judith Oster, the owner of Caravans on 1 Page Ave. in the Grove Arcade.

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Soaring Food Need

Hannah Randall

The main floor of Manna FoodBank’s warehouse in Asheville is a beehive of activity as scores of staff and volunteers pack, load and wrap food for distribution. Boxes, pallets, and forklifts still abound, but the vibe has changed.

In her office, Manna CEO Hannah Randall shifts in her chair. The data points she sees on her computer screen are staggering. The pandemic has amplified the scope of poverty and hunger in Western North Carolina like nothing before.

The data is also forcing a stark realization that both sourcing and logistics must be reimagined on the fly. 

Randall estimates that to meet the spike in demand for Asheville and Buncombe County in coming months, Manna will need to distribute at least 508,968 pounds of food each month representing over 424,140 meals. 

“What we are seeing is that the number of people showing up at the local Markets where we directly provide food has more than doubled from 1,932 in February to 4,380 in April,” she said.

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Asheville’s Restaurant Newcomers: What’s Still Coming and When

Meherwan Irani

Restaurateur and chef Meherwan Irani is no stranger to hard times. 

He opened Chai Pani Asheville in 2009 in the heart of the Great Recession. “I knew that it would actually work in an economy where people were looking for great food at a good value, something different from what else was out there.” 

Now, Irani faces a similar challenge – bringing to life his plans for two new additions to Asheville’s food scene, including the highly anticipated S&W Market and a still-under-wraps concept for the Grove Arcade’s “Restaurant Row.” Both are on hold for now.

Meherwan Irani

The coronavirus pandemic that crippled existing restaurants has caused delays and altered plans for new ones that had been scheduled to open in the spring and summer. The climate is tough for all businesses, let alone projects that were still in development.

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‘We’ve proved that we can’ Pandemic speeds criminal justice reforms

Coronavirus has led to dramatic changes in crime and justice in Asheville from the courtroom to the cop on the street.

Reported crimes are down, police are making fewer arrests and inmates are being sprung from jail.

Criminal cases filed in Buncombe court have declined sharply since mid-March.
Source: North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts 

And the criminal justice system of the future may bear little resemblance to pre-Covid-19 with lawyers in masks, social distancing in the courtroom and an excuse to get out of jury duty that could apply to a sizable portion of the population. Pre-existing conditions and even age could be a legitimate reason not to serve.

The impact may last well past the pandemic and could finally achieve a long-heralded reform: converting the county jail from a holding pen for the poor to a lockup reserved for serious offenders.

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‘We’ve proved that we can’
Pandemic speeds criminal justice reforms

Coronavirus has led to dramatic changes in crime and justice in Asheville from the courtroom to the cop on the street.

Reported crimes are down, police are making fewer arrests and inmates are being sprung from jail.

Criminal cases filed in Buncombe court have declined sharply since mid-March.
Source: North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts 

And the criminal justice system of the future may bear little resemblance to pre-Covid-19 with lawyers in masks, social distancing in the courtroom and an excuse to get out of jury duty that could apply to a sizable portion of the population. Pre-existing conditions and even age could be a legitimate reason not to serve.

The impact may last well past the pandemic and could finally achieve a long-heralded reform: converting the county jail from a holding pen for the poor to a lockup reserved for serious offenders.

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Mark Meadows’ political protégé calls for reopening state’s economy despite health risks

The Maggie Valley businesswoman's hopes to inherit the congressional seat held by Mark Meadows may be jeopardized by the upstart newcomer Madison Cawthorn.

Republican congressional-candidate Lynda Bennett, who hopes to win the District 11 seat recently vacated by her political patron Mark Meadows, is calling for an immediate end to North Carolina’s stay-home order, calling pandemic restrictions an infringement “on our rights and freedom.”

GOP congressional candidate Lynda Bennett is calling for an immediate end to North Carolina’s Covid-19 restrictions

In a radio interview with ultra-conservative Breitbart News last weekend and infrequent follow-up comments on her Twitter and Facebook feeds, Bennett has sharply criticized Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to extend the restrictions through May 8, referring to them as “politics.”   Yet the governor’s policy is in alignment with guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and President Trump’s coronavirus task force, which set benchmarks to be met indicating the contagion is slowing and deaths are trending downward before lifting the restrictions. 

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The COVID-19 campaign: Political candidates are staying home, too

Morris “Moe” Davis had hoped to spend this spring roaming Western North Carolina, meeting voters one on one and building a campaign organization able to flip to the Democratic Party the congressional seat recently vacated by Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows.

Retired Air Force colonel Moe Davis is the Democratic nominee for Congress in District 11.

Instead, the Democratic nominee in the 11th Congressional District is stuck tweeting regularly and spending some time conversing with mountain residents on Facebook, plus keeping track of the bears he often sees near his home in Asheville’s Chunns Cove neighborhood.

“Not a replacement for traditional campaigning,” Davis readily admitted in a telephone interview, “but you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.”

With baby kissing, hand shaking and door knocking out of the question, candidates in key races from Congress to the County Commission are sidelined and struggling to connect —

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Scared of Losing Everything

Asheville’s celebrity chef Katie Button describes the challenges and stark realities facing her industry and business since closing her renowned restaurants Cúrate and Button & Co. Bagels on March 16.

Asheville’s celebrity chef Katie Button describes the challenges and stark realities facing her industry and business since closing her renowned restaurants Cúrate and Button & Co. Bagels on March 16.

It’s really surreal, and I think that on a day-to-day basis I feel differently about it, whether that’s sadness or anger or hope. We have spent the past nine years working really hard to create a restaurant and hospitality group that functioned, that was able to support a team of 140 employees, was able to offer that team unprecedented benefits like novel ideas around health insurance and direct primary care and paid time off and sick days and wages that were a living wage to everybody. It felt so good to be able to have a business that was operating, that was generating enough revenue that allowed us to explore other new businesses like the bagel shop and an events space.

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The Long Road Back

A post-pandemic Asheville faces a daunting return

Asheville’s thrumming downtown, a darling of the “best of” list makers and an economic hub for Western North Carolina, stands quiet as its once harried restaurant owners, beer-thirsty tourists and Millennial workers hunker down to avoid the health threat posed by a deadly coronavirus.

Boarded-up storefronts warn off patrons in scenes reminiscent of the 1970s and ’80s. Visitors who just a few weeks ago poured into town by the thousands have vanished, and gleaming new hotels stand empty. But talk is gradually shifting toward a restart.

Asheville’s storefronts remain boarded up in scenes reminiscent of downtown in the 1970s and ’80s.
Photo credit: Jason Sandford

What might a post-pandemic Asheville look like? AVL Watchdog asked nearly two dozen elected officials, business owners and leaders in the arts,

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