Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer. Photo courtesy of Max Cooper/The Asheville Blade

Asheville faces difficulties in raising enough revenue to meet its challenges, but Mayor Esther Manheimer said she believes that by making partnerships, pouring efforts into “innovation districts” and engaging in careful planning, the city can attract enough private investment to overcome them.

That was what Manheimer laid out Wednesday afternoon in her first State of the City address before a crowd of about 70 people in the U.S. Cellular Center ballroom.

“Metropolitan areas work as networks,” Manheimer said. “Slow movement and political stagnation at the federal and state levels is putting more responsibility on cities to get things done and provide the infrastructure necessary to do business.”

But with limited resources, she added, that meant that a city’s network — the nonprofits, other governments and the private sector in its area — were more important than ever to partner with.

“Collaboration is the name of the game,” she said. “Asheville has a strong, functioning network.”

Partly because of that collaboration, she asserted, Asheville’s “been lucky to enjoy a robust economy and low unemployment, but we still have challenges.”

Previous addresses by former Mayor Terry Bellamy were at City Hall, usually in the evening, but Manheimer instead chose to make a lunchtime presentation, complete with slides. At the last Asheville City Council meeting, she promised it would be “more like a TED talk” than a traditional speech.

But the mayors past and present had one thing in common: they both focused on economic development and how the city might overcome some unique problems.

“When you consider the city as a business, there is a structural imbalance in the rate of growth in revenues and expenditures,” she said.

As a regional economic hub, “Asheville’s services and infrastructure support a population that far exceeds its own population. Our daytime population grows by 43,000 people a day,” she said, not including the numbers of tourists visiting the city.

Cuts to the city’s revenue from the legislature in Raleigh, she added, only made the situation more difficult.

First elected to Asheville City Council in 2009 Manheimer, a lawyer, won the mayoralty in a landslide last year. She has devoted particular attention to economic development and a “return on investment” approach, with city resources devoted to growing particular areas in hopes that they will offer a similar boost to economic activity (and city revenues) as the revived downtown has.

Changes to the River Arts District

In the presentation, she focused on the investment and changes coming to the River Arts District as an example of this approach. The city recently received a $14.6 million federal TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant to pursue an overhaul of transportation infrastructure in the neighborhood, with additional help from a number of other organizations and potential grant dollars on the way.

The city has also completed a study on the possible effects of gentrification in the area, and development there remains a controversial topic.

Manheimer asserted that building in the area was the result of a process bringing together residents, city staff, other governments and nonprofits and private investment to work out a win-win situation for everyone through a process she called “community visioning.”

“These plans will connect low- and moderate-income neighborhoods still feeling the effects of urban renewal from the 1970s to new and improved transportation, access to jobs, healthy foods and services from across Asheville, providing access to upward mobility,” she said. “These plans are also an opportunity to increase Asheville’s tax base.”

The RAD isn’t the only area city leaders are setting their sights on for a similar approach to development.

Manheimer noted two additional “innovation districts” — the South Slope and Charlotte Street areas — where city leaders would try to manage a similar process to attract more private investment and where the city can help redevelop.

“This is an emerging term for cities,” Manheimer said. “The city of Asheville hopes to capture the vision of the people while creating a plan to realize the potential of these innovation districts.”

The city “stands ready to invest” in improved infrastructure to help the process, she added, with the result of preparing “a palette ready for private investment” in those areas. To that end, the city was trying to prepare plans for the other two “innovation districts” and “engage their networks” to create these plans, including redeveloping public housing, she said.

“We’re a unique city and we’re finding out who we are, and we’re doing it on purpose,” she concluded. “We have a lot of opportunities in the future.”

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David Forbes is a former contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press.

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