Our city is undergoing many changes. Many of us who have lived in Asheville for more than 20 years, when we get the happy occasion to bump into one another, lament the days when a sense of community and small town linked us together. Gone are the days when we knew everyone in the town, at the airport or in the few restaurants the city offered.
When I arrived here in 1988 and found my first property in North Asheville near Woodfin, my friends were aghast that I would chose that location for our family home. It was like living in the back woods, an Appalachian outpost in what seemed to me conveniently located to downtown. I had moved to the city after living on 5 acres of land located 45 miles away from my work and friends. Now, I was within 2 miles of city center and yet surrounded by the privacy that almost 3 acres of land afforded me.
Downtown was almost a ghost town. You could drive your car down Biltmore Street and rarely pass another one, buildings were boarded up, streets empty after dark. There was one coffeehouse, in the basement of Malaprops, and a growing group of us would gather regularly to experience “city life,” such as it was at the time. There were a few strong pioneers holding downtown together; T.S. Morrison’s, Earth Guild, 23 Page to name a few. The Asheville Mall had drawn all the shopping away from town 20 years earlier, and it wasn’t until the early 1990’s that stores began to find their way back downtown.
The City of Asheville spurred economic development downtown by building new parking lots and opening a development office in the city center. Philanthropists and city advocates brought their energy and support to spark the amenities that created the foundation of a city on the return. I was fortunate to be one of the new pioneers that came to downtown soon after that. In 1992 I opened my business Preservation Hall Architectural Salvage. My partner and I filled the 26,000 square feet of warehouse space above T.S. Morrison’s with the doors, windows, fixtures, wood and miscellany that were being pulled from the buildings and homes under renovation in downtown and Montford. We resold them to the people redoing their homes and businesses. It is fun to walk downtown today and see some of those items still loved and in use today.
The City was set on the track we find it on today when the Buncombe County Tourist Development Agency was founded and granted the right to charge lodging taxes on overnight stays. The funds raised were used to advertise Asheville and its surrounding areas to the world at large. They ran ads in national magazines, on tv sets all across the southeast and engaged in PR campaigns that put our community on the map. They also have invested over $27 million in projects that attract visitors to this community. It’s one of the mixed blessings that is a part of the changing Asheville scene. Tourists and visitors bring a breath of fresh air to our community, you can hear different languages and see a diverse set of people walking our streets for the first time in a long time. But they also put a wear and tear on our city that the TDA and others seem reluctant to help address.
I know many of us worry that the City we once loved is gone. I don’t think so. I think it is just being loved by so many more. We may not see the same people downtown or at the airport, actually we are lucky if we see people we know at all! But life in Asheville is like any natural system. Change happens, the meadow becomes the forests and new life moves in.
Rents and housing prices have risen far beyond what most of us could imagine back in the last century. We all wish we had had the money back then to buy property when it was so much less expensive! But we didn’t have the money then because our town was economically depressed, many of us living hand to mouth to make ends meet. And so as jobs return and vitality improves, prices have gone up. It’s the same everywhere as people work hard to address the woes of a community. The Good comes with the bad and we all adjust.
I know I am staying here. The climate is delightful, the mountains fill the soul and the creative spirit still animates the heart of this town. If you can come and bring the best of who you are to share with the rest of us, then we welcome you….and I guess we welcome the changes. It’s inevitable. What we do with it is what is important.