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After hearing more than two hours of public comment Tuesday night, Asheville City Council voted unanimously to delay action on a controversial proposal to establish a downtown service district.
City Council, instead, agreed to reconsider the proposed Business Improvement District plan at its Sept. 25 meeting. City Manager Gary Jackson also said he could offer an outline within the next week that details how council might gather more public input into the proposal.
The proposal — often shortened to BID — calls for establishing a special municipal service area that uses an additional 7-cent property tax and other city and county tax money to help provide certain services within a designated area. That area is essentially the current Central Business District in downtown Asheville.
Tuesday’s delay means the district, if eventually approved, cannot be implemented until July 2013 at the earliest.
Most council members told Tuesday’s overflow crowd that they generally approved the idea of a BID.
But after the public comment period was extended three times during the meeting, Councilman Marc Hunt moved to delay action on the proposal, stating that more work was required to “help satisfy some unsettled views.”
“As enthusiastic as I am … I believe more work is required,” Hunt said.
The proposal, which has been the subject of multiple public meetings in recent weeks, drew more than 50 people into council chambers, with many others forced to stand outside or in two overflow areas.
Drumming and chanting from BID protestors stationed outside City Hall could also be heard through the room during the meeting, at which more than 30 people spoke either for or against the plan.
Susan Griffin, downtown property owner and member of the Interim Board of Directors that drafted the proposal, said after the meeting that she had expected council’s move to delay making a decision.
“We were really set out on our own as a committee with no direction from the city whatsoever, except (to) implement a BID,” Griffin said. “I think, with city staff involved in this and input from more of the city, that we’re just going to have a better idea of where to go and be able to prepare a plan that’s going to be acceptable the next time we bring it forward.”
Libertie Valance, co-owner of Firestorm Café & Books on Commerce Street, helped lead some local opposition to the effort.
“I guess I would say that I’m not necessarily incredibly optimistic because it sounds like Council, overall, is looking to retool the existing BID proposal, which I don’t favor,” Valance said. “But three months does give community members more time on the ground to organize and truly have their voices heard.”
One major point that drew concern from council members was the district’s self-elected Board of Directors, which would oversee the distribution of the district’s yearly $800,000 budget.
In the Asheville proposal, of the 13 voting seats on the board, nine seats are specifically reserved for downtown property owners. Five of those nine seats are reserved for owners of property with an assessed tax value greater than $1.5 million, which make up 50 percent of the BID share, according to the proposal.
Councilman Cecil Bothwell cited costly redevelopment projects such as the Pack Square Conservancy as reasons for his opposition to an unelected board.
“I don’t think we have a good record of non-elected boards handling money in this city,” Bothwell said.
Griffin said after the meeting that the board is the most difficult issue in any BID.
“It’s a little bit of art and a little bit of magic to make that work,” Griffin said. “I think there are some legitimate issues raised, but I think we did the best we could with the information we had. But I think there is room for improvement.”
Councilman Gordon Smith also questioned the role of the plan’s proposed “ambassadors,” who could, among other things, patrol downtown and offer some basic visitor information and clean-up reporting. Smith said he wanted more information on the role the Asheville Police Department would play in any safety patrols downtown.
Concerns about security
With three different rooms in the Asheville City Building filled with residents interested in the BID, protesters against the proposal occupied the building’s front steps.
They passed out their own BID info sheets, wrote on the ground with chalk, played instruments, made noise and spoke out against the BID to communicate their worry about the proposal’s potentially harmful effects.
Many of the more than 30 protestors in front of the building said their primary concern about the BID was the control given to the plan’s “ambassadors.”
“I’m concerned about hiring mercenaries to keep the ‘riffraff’ out of the public spaces,” protester and Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College student Paula Bishop said.
While some worried that they would be considered “riffraff” themselves, others were most concerned about what the proposal would mean for homeless people living downtown.
“I’d like to see public spaces that are truly free where people can be and sleep and live,” said Ekua Adisa, a community organizer present at the protest.
Additional reporting by Katie Bailey.