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Answer to downtown safety issue? City touts partnerships
Sunday, 03 November 2019 13:59
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A city response was provided to grave concerns expressed last month about “crime, safety, cleanliness, drugs and homeless issues facing downtown” Asheville during a meeting of the Council of Independent Business Owners on Oct. 4 in UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center.

About 75 people attended the early-morning monthly issues meeting that included breakfast, followed by three presentations. (Separate stories on the other two addresses appear on pages A2 and A5.)

 Cathy Ball, Asheville’s assistant city manager, addressed (as noted in CIBO’s meeting agenda), “Is downtown at a tipping point and, if so, what can be done about it?”

“We heard folks’ concerns last month” at the September CIBO meeting,” Ball said, in opening her address to the group.

She added that the problems are of such magnitude, no one entity can fix them. Instead, Ball contended, “We need partnerships....

“I wanted to address concerns,” but feels the need to point out that “the (police) crew we have downtown is not full-time and fully staffed... Starting in January… it will be a full-time crew and fully staffed.”

She added, “We have more property crime issues downtown than anywhere else” in Asheville. “Also, we know we’re having a problem with homelessness.”

As for homelessness, “our (the city government’s) aspiration is to make it rare, brief and nonrecurring. To that end, “We have a program with AHOPE” that is showing much promise.

“About 150 of those people are homeless people who live here permanently... So we are outreaching with AHOPE and Homeward Bound to link people with services they need. They will help businesses understand what they should do” if, for instance, they arrive at work in the morning and find a stranger asleep in their doorway.

“The next one I want to mention — and I don’t want to steal their thunder ... we have a county-city task force, as a result of homelessness. We know needles are left and all kinds of wastes are left....”

To that end, Ball also noted that a joint meeting was scheduled Oct. 8 “on the opioid epidemic.”

Further, she said, “we also have our Asheville Fire Department located downtown. And they are open 24/7” to help with issues downtown.

“We also have Dana Frankel, who is the city’s downtown development specialist. She is an Asheville native who was hired to the post in May 2016. (The city lists her job description as “ensuring downtown stakeholders are heard and included in city plans and processes.”) Frankel was present at the CIBO meeting, but did not speak.

What’s more, Ball asserted, “We have really ramped up the cleaning services downtown. We contract services for people to clean the sidewalks. At night, we have people who come five nights a week to clean/sweep the streets....

Then, adding a sudden moment of levity to an otherwise serious presentation, Ball said, with a smile, “We also have the property at 72 Haywood Street — we call it ‘The Well of Hope.’ Not the ‘other’ name,” referencing (but not naming) its common, but negative nickname  — “The Pit of Despair.” The CIBO audience erupted into laughter over Ball’s playful renaming.

Regarding the so-called “Well of Hope,” she said, “It’s open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (daily). We had a few issues with crime at that location, so we cut back the hours.” 

As for the downtown’s problems, she said, “The next step is we’re going to continue working with the county. We’re going to continue working with the businesses.

“It is a call to action. We are community…. People tend to isolate and want an individual organization to address the problem However, it takes partnerships because it is so massive and takes so many different groups to address the issues.”

During a brief question-and-answer period that followed, an unidentified man praised a city document that he praised as “almost a perfect program for a business improvement district. It’s a very successful model used by many communities,” including, he said, Portland, Maine. 

“I think there is an opportunity,” Ball replied. “It will at least draw the resources into one location. Whether it becomes viable, it depends on the support.”

At that point, Shelia Surrett, one of two women downtown property owners who presented an address to CIBO in September, contending that downtown is unsafe, told Ball, in reference to the APD staffing shortage downtown,  “Until the police are stabilizied, we won’t solve our problems...

“We can’t wait until next year... We need to do something quick — 2020 is too late.”

Ball smiled, but did not reply to Surrett’s contention.

Then, Surrett asserted,  “If we had Asheville (divided) into districts, somebody (on Asheville City Council) would be held accountable” for problems in that council member’s downtown district.

Surrett’s comment drew applause from a number of the CIBO members, but Ball, maintaining an unflappable stance, once again, did not reply, but instead smiled, gathered her notes and returned to her seat in the audience.

Immediately after the meeting, Surrett told the Daily Planet that “this is all ‘on’ the mayor,” Esther Manheimer, who, she noted, did not attend. 

The mayor “let Cathy (Ball) — like she always does” when there is a controversy — field criticisms for her policies, Surrett charged.

As for the crime wave and lack of safety downtown, Surrett asserted, “It is a state of emergency! We need more police officers.”

She also charged that “90 percent-plus of the homeless downtown are being bused in” by someone. 

What’s more, Surrett expressed skepticism about the veracity of the city’s statements about the downtown police staffing level, wondering what the true numbers are now — and what staffing will be in 2020.



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