EDITOR’S NOTE: Contributing columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insight on various topics in Marketplace column.
The downtown district of Asheville, N.C. is charming, eclectic and lively.
It has not always been this way. In fact, as recently as 20 years ago, few ventured into a dark, lifeless and unsafe downtown at night. The recent renaissance of Asheville is one that other towns, big and small, should reap and replicate.
Asheville has experienced the good times — and the bad. After decades of prosperity in the early 1900s, Asheville was devastated by the Great Depression. Encumbered by the largest per-capita municipal debt in the U.S., the city suffocated through 60 years of financial stagnation.
By the early 1990s, the city emerged with a clean bill of financial health. And city officials got busy with enterprising initiatives. They chose to emphasize a vibrant downtown.
They began by enticing microbreweries to move into the downtown area. They refurbished old Art Deco buildings and filled them with restaurants and shops and art galleries.
City officials encouraged street performances, hosted outdoor festivals, welcoming live music inside and outside. A healthy tourism industry emerged and downtown Asheville flourished.
Nowadays, festivals, fairs, and farmer’s markets happen daily. The city has been recognized as one of the “Top 25 Small Cities for Art” for 12 straight years and has reigned as the champion “Beer City USA” (from the 14 microbreweries that are now in place).
City officials, residents and businesses are unified with a “green” mentality — protecting the many parks and common areas — while a “buy local” emphasis permeates the area. It is a harmonious relationship between business and residents and government.
Fernandina Beach could learn a few things from Asheville. Let’s organize a trip with local officials and business owners to visit there and gain an inside perspective of what they are doing and how.
Downtown businesses here have had to endure a pesky noise ordinance, while being encumbered by outdated city policies and arcane procedures. We couldn’t even bring in street musicians without controversy. Within the last couple years, Fernandina Beach has opened up to beer sales at outdoor festivals, when other places have been doing this for decades.
In defense of local officials, we are having more outdoor festivals, and a downtown concert series in the summer has been a success. And we can boast 20 locally owned restaurants in downtown, and a historic look and unique feel.
When government is operated efficiently, there are funds to reinvest back into the community. Though the “Forward Fernandina” initiative had some useful aspects, it was completely driven by borrowed public funds (that must be paid back).
In contrast, Asheville has created an “Office of Economic Development” to promote effective city policies and provide development grants for private companies and industries to relocate there. And an “Economic Development Incentives Policy” is designed to stimulate private sector investment and job creation.
In 2009, the city council accepted a “Downtown Master Plan” as a visionary roadmap that addresses development, culture and historic preservation. The city even has a system whereby residents can text or call in about potholes and broken sidewalks and faulty utilities — as a way to coordinate government with the citizenry.
There is no way that Fernandina Beach can become a city the size and scope of Asheville. We obviously are limited in size from being on an island. But we can adopt some of the progressive policies that cities like Asheville have embraced (there are some similarities already).
Asheville has recently initiated a redevelopment project along its riverfront. Colorful art studios adorn the riverfront, located inside old buildings that have been renovated — much of it by private investment.
What a concept. We could certainly learn something there for our beleaguered waterfront.