Economic & Business Development


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Downtown Asheville. Did this just happen by accident? (City of Asheville)
Here’s how we got to today’s post: through the past few weeks, I’ve done a variety of items on the attempts of long-challenged Fresno to rebuild its historic downtown.

  • Then a reader from Seattle explained how his town had pulled off a comparable feat. He  pointed out that visitors assumed Seattle just “naturally” looked the way it does now, but in fact the downtown revival was the fruit of at least 30 years of deliberate planning and effort.
  • Then another reader said that planning and effort had only a loose connection to the finished result. Tampa, he said, had tried as hard and as long as Seattle but had little to show for it. Meanwhile elegant little Asheville, North Carolina had apparently drifted its way into a celebrated downtown.
  • Then a reader in Tampa said, Wait a minute! It’s actually nice here too! We’ve even got a Riverwalk. You can read his case in this post.
Now the expected further shoe has dropped, with readers from Asheville writing in to say: We drifted our way into success? Hah! Some “drift!”

Here is a sample, from J. Patrick Whalen, who has lived in Asheville since the mid-1970s. I’m quoting him at length because the issues he mentions connect the stories we’ve heard in every corner of the country. I’m also including some of the photos Mr. Whalen sent, of Asheville before-and-after its recent renaissance.

I saw, with some consternation, the description of Asheville’s revitalization process in the “More on Nice Downtowns” column Tuesday, 4/21.

I’m afraid the reader who wrote in is not very well acquainted with the long hard battle Asheville went through to bring downtown back from the mostly boarded-up deserted place it was in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s to the vital downtown we have now. I will take a shot at summarizing the key elements of that battle, but please rest assured the story is more complicated and there were more participants than I can do justice to in this short note

1) Asheville had a large number of beautiful old buildings built in Art Deco style and otherwise during the 1920’s boom period.

2) When the depression hit, Asheville was devastated. The City itself nearly went bankrupt; an economic pall settled over the area for over 50 years; and there was no reason to do anything other than let buildings stand vacant or underutilized because nothing much was happening.

Grove Arcade building before the Asheville renaissance (before-and-after photos via J. Patrick Whalen)

3) When the interstate came through downtown and the Asheville Mall was built in the 60’s and early 70’s, downtown was effectively dead.

Grove Arcade now  (Romantic Asheville)

4) What followed was basically a 30 year period during which businesses closed and downtown was left boarded up with empty sidewalks. Combined with the long-term economic challenges the mountain area had faced, a profound pessimism settled over the community so that every new idea floated to bring the city back was met with an oft-repeated refrain: “That will never work here – don’t even try.”

5) Some of that pessimism was reinforced when large-scale solutions attempted by city leaders failed. A proposal was floated demolish a large part of the historic downtown and replace it with an enclosed mall. That idea was voted down but in the process local citizens became much more invested in saving and bringing back downtown. Citizen resistance was led by John Lantzius, who was already busy, with his sister, Dawn, renovating buildings, in one of the blocks slated for demolition, and providing low-cost spaces for local businesses. Other large-scale projects were actually completed by out-of-town developers during this period but the projects failed financially.  The large-scale failures were part of the story of the 80’s.

6) However, another part of the 80’s story was that the local citizen reaction to the downtown mall proposal combined with the fact that those failed large-scale projects which were completed also served as sort of  “first buds of spring” to give people a little hope, encouraged some of the remaining local entrepreneurs to hold on and some new ones to take a chance on downtown.

The City Council and City staff, who had partnered with and supported those developers, took a number of other brave, forward-looking steps to actually kick-start revitalization: liquor by the drink was approved for restaurants (in a formerly dry community); sidewalk dining was approved; Bele Chere, a major outdoor summer festival was established; the City built new parking garages at a time when nobody really saw a need for new parking; and the City and the County kept all major public buildings downtown. All of these steps had no large immediate effect and provoked a political backlash which forced those leaders out of office, but without their actions, our downtown miracle would never have happened.

Coker Building in the 1990s

7) Although that pessimistic “it will never work here” response to revitalization efforts was a solidly entrenched local reaction, the beauty of the area continued to attract hopeful new residents. In particular, two new residents, picked up the baton after the political backlash in the 80’s forced the public sector to back off.

Roger McGuire was indefatigable in working to drum up support for revitalizing downtown, raising money and leading nonprofit efforts to that effect; and leading the campaign for a new arts and science center downtown.  Julian Price, after conversations with Roger, committed his small fortune to supporting downtown entrepreneurs and creating places for people to live downtown. Those two men, along with the local creative-types and artists who had served as pioneers of downtown living and as entrepreneurs running some of downtown’s shops, kept the faith and made extensive personal commitments to bring the heart of the city back.

Modern Coker building

8) Roger and Julian both saw the need to create residential activity in formerly empty downtown buildings.  Julian’s company in particular, Public Interest Projects, planned and helped put in place an interesting mix of downtown businesses by either financially supporting local entrepreneurs or creating businesses out of whole cloth, so that downtown would have: a great local bookstore, a movie theater, a  European bakery, a grocery store, a number of interesting and appealing restaurants, a nationally known live music club, and high-speed Internet for downtown, while at the same time creating a number of affordable market rate apartments and condominiums so that people could live downtown.

9) Creating significant residential opportunities downtown and the pioneering response of the people who took up the challenge of downtown living had an almost magical effect on the atmosphere downtown and encouraged more and more local entrepreneurs to take part. Soon other local developers saw the opportunities and also took part, taking advantage of the stock of interesting historic buildings suitable for renovation. At present the process continues unabated and is, in fact, picking up steam as hotels and other residential opportunities are being added downtown.  A looming challenge, with downtown’s booming popularity, will be creating moderately-priced housing downtown so that more people who want to live downtown, can do so, while also preserving the character of downtown and the diverse energies created by the strong local business vibe.

Sidewalk life in Asheville, shorts and all

10) All of the above is a vast oversimplification of the process and doesn’t do justice to all the people who took part, but the public/private efforts which gave us the Asheville downtown that people love today assuredly did not “just happen”.

If it matters, I’ve been a resident of Asheville since 1976. I worked with Roger McGuire in some of those non-profits mentioned in Par. 7. I am a former chairman of the Asheville Downtown Commission. And I run Public Interest Projects, also mentioned above.

We haven’t made Asheville part of our American Futures travel plans precisely because it is already so famous for its burnished downtown. But the details of J. Patrick Whalen’s account very closely tracks what we’ve heard in Sioux Falls, Greenville, Allentown, and elsewhere. Thanks to him for spelling it out.

One other sample from the Asheville mailbag, by a visitor who describes the importance of “halfbacks” there:

As other readers have mentioned, downtown Asheville is a real gem: compact and attractive, and for the most part not ostentatious.

One thing that became clear after just a few days was the sizeable population of well-heeled retirees. This explains in part how Asheville can support a huge number of boutiques, restaurants, antiquarian bookstores, art galleries and the like. It’s not just the tourist trade keeping these places afloat (though that is significant, too), but a permanent population with lots of discretionary income.

It turns out that Asheville is a pretty nice place to spend time and money. Locals have a name for a certain faction of affluent folks in their midst who could afford to retire “away”: after relocating from Philadelphia or New York to Florida, many decided they didn’t really like the Sunshine State. So, they headed halfway back to the East Coast, thus becoming “halfbacks.”

As a housekeeping matter, periodically I’ll post reminders of the information below, in light of the navigation changes in the redesigned Atlantic site. FYI:

– A list of posts, articles, reader responses, etc by me is now found here. This is the current version of what has been my part of the site.

– Similarly you can find what has been Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog here, and Jeff Goldberg’s here. And similarly-composed URLs for our other writers.

– For our other entries in our American Futures travels, you can find Deborah Fallows’s writings here and John Tierney’s here.

– The current project page for our travels and reports is here. There’s a searchable archive of the posts, by city and date and so on, here. And you can see an archive of our TinyLetter newsletters about the travels here or sign up for the newsletter here.