Asheville City Council Candidate Arts Survey

Press Release

The Asheville Area Arts Council’s mission is to keep the arts at the heart of our community. We fulfill this mission in part by advocating for our local arts sector. This year the arts council is conducting our first-ever candidate arts survey in two parts. Part one focuses on Asheville City Council candidates ahead of the Primary Forum this Wednesday, February 5 at A-B Tech Ferguson Auditorium from 5:30-8 p.m. In part two the arts council gives Buncombe County Commissioner candidates a chance to weigh in on creative sector issues.

Arts council staff sent all nine Asheville City Council candidates a four-question survey, asking their positions on Asheville’s creative sector. Seven of the nine candidates – Kristen Goldsmith, Rich Lee, Shane McCarthy, Kim Roney, Nicole Townsend, Sage Turner, and Keith Young – responded. See their full responses below.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing Asheville's creative sector? What do you propose to do to address these issues?

Goldsmith: The issues facing Asheville’s creative sector are broadly the same as those many Ashevillians are facing, challenges with affordability and livability. In the last several years our housing costs have skyrocketed, which has forced folks to move farther out into the County. They’re forced to commute into Asheville on a daily basis, which has led to further struggles with traffic congestion and a lack of parking downtown. In addition to increased housing costs, small businesses and artists are struggling to find affordable studios and workspace. To address these issues, I will prioritize more affordable housing development, and policies that will focus on responsible land use, including more office space downtown. I will also advocate for more live-work spaces for our creatives, which will help them save money by having an integrated space for both their housing and creatives needs, and eliminate a lengthy commute. I’ll also partner with Buncombe County to develop fare free public transit, allowing folks who live in the county to commute downtown on a daily basis without having to rely on a car.

Lee: My biggest concern is the affordability of housing and artist studio and retail space. Far from being a city that supports a thriving, diverse arts scene, artists are increasingly pushed out of the city. Many working artists in Asheville hold second and third jobs in the service sector, so issues around chronically low wages and poor working conditions in these positions affect them doubly. 

To address this, I would support the creation of permanently affordable artist “live-work” space in the River Arts district as quickly as possible. The city controls property in RAD earmarked for affordable housing and studio space, and is in the beginnings of a deal with a national nonprofit – Artspace – specializing in protecting affordability for artists in gentrifying areas to build on it. But it’s holding off while affordable housing work proceeds in other parts of the city. I don’t think we can wait. I think keeping footholds for a diverse community of artists in Asheville is a vital economic-development interest and a big part of maintaining our culture. It’s also what tourism-development funds are meant for: making Asheville attractive and vibrant for tourists and locals alike. I would argue strongly that hotel-tax money should be used to support arts and artist living and working spaces. Additionally, I would work to diversify the economy and boost wages across all industries, holding the service and gig industry to a living-wage standard by incubating small, local, independent businesses with grants and city resources normally reserved for large outside corporations. A stronger economy more generally means more locals able to buy and participate in arts, and less dependence on tourism for patronage.

McCarthy: The biggest issue facing Asheville’s creative sector is lack of affordable housing. Most artists and musicians hold other jobs to make ends meet. Skyrocketing housing prices mean that our creative workers have to put more hours into wage labor and less into their craft, and some are priced out of Asheville entirely. On city council, I will build affordable housing for people with low incomes and remove barriers to home ownership so that our artists can afford to live here.

Roney: As a piano teacher in Asheville for the past 13 years and part of an artist, musician, and performance arts family, my husband and I are working multiple jobs to make ends meet while the cost of living rises and the tourism industry strains our natural resources and infrastructure. I will not pretend to speak for everyone in our artist community, so I’ll share part of my story and some thoughts: When we moved to Asheville in 2006 after helping our friends open Harvest Records, we rented a 1,000 square-foot house in West Asheville for $700-month. We could both work from home, and to pay the bills while we incubated our craft, we worked unreliable low-wage retail and hotel jobs full time and overtime. That house has since more than doubled in rent. I’m familiar with stagnant wages, gigs for “exposure,” and friendships made and lost while learning to build community where few thrive and many struggle. It’s difficult to articulate a story I’m in the middle of as I’m watching it happen, like being in the river while it’s raining, but I can best explain it as this–we’re navigating an abusive relationship with our tourist industry and an economy that views us as disposable. I am more familiar every day of what it means to have participated in gentrification of Asheville, to have made beautiful what was stolen and demolished. 

The loss of place and people priced out hurts, a pain familiar to this community for decades. We definitely aren’t going to come to a set of fast, easy answers in this survey. In conversation with community members about these questions, I’m hearing affirmation of my own concerns: we’re dealing with lack of trust; systemic racial disparities; erosion of dignity & value; modeling bad behavior from patriarchy & capitalism; and lack of affordability in every aspect–housing, work space, and basic living needs. When I say we have to Be ‘Bout it Being Better, I mean we have to join in solidarity across race and class for a resilient community in the face of climate change, white supremacy, gentrification, loss, and trauma, and it’s going to be a serious endeavor. It has to be, because we’re in community together, and our next generation is already holding us accountable to what comes next. 

What I suggest comes next looks like the heart of what a Green New Deal for Asheville could look like, but will require thorough community engagement in order to build trust and promote healing: cooperatively-owned community spaces as part of neighborhood resilience efforts; a Poet Laureate and Artist in Residence program; an eviction protection fund for renters; community-led efforts to address equity in our schools and training programs; capital improvements through participatory budgeting; and rotating seats on boards & commissions centering Black, Brown, Latinx, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ artists lending their professional and lived experience to decision making as part of participatory democracy. It will require divestment and accountability in our current City budget so we can invest in solutions, addressing the false-narrative of resource scarcity as we coordinate accountability in the region, and building coalition with cities across the state to address state legislation, especially regarding our occupancy/hotel tax.

Townsend: As a writer, I am proud to share a community with thousands of fellow creators. Both my own personal experiences and the experiences of my community members have made me realize that there is a lack of affordable cooperative space for folks to use. Both for creation and display. I would like to work collaboratively with Buncombe County and local creatives to invest in cooperative space for creatives. I am also aware of the deep need for local creatives to be connected to mentorship so that they can hone their craft and create a strong support network in hopes that they can have an opportunity to make an adequate living through doing something that they love.

Turner: Affordability is the top issue. Creatives are deeply impacted by the shortage of affordable housing, affordable studio space, and increasing cost of living in Asheville. We need to make affordable housing our biggest priority and focus on location-based planning, including along transit corridors and within walking distance to hubs like Downtown, RAD, and West Asheville. As the chair of the Affordable Housing Committee, I am working hard on these solutions. We are working on a partnership for affordable artist housing in the RAD on city owned land and I will continue to push this forward as a pilot for other opportunities. 

Additionally, we need to foster win-win opportunities. Instead of barring buskers from selling CDs while busking, we need to find a path to allow those sales, which will delight tourists who want that souvenir and buskers who can earn more. Instead of closing art venues before peak crowds arrive on the weekends, extend those hours for the enjoyment of visitors and to enable sales for local artists. Additionally, we outsource many jobs (i.e. tourism advertising) that could be done by Asheville creatives. If we were to hire from our experienced local pool of talent, those high-wage contracts and jobs could instead benefit Asheville’s resident creative sector.

Young: As an artist and fine arts major during undergrad we were frequently told that life as an artist would be challenging. The challenges here in Asheville are mainly affordability and a lack of affordable housing. I propose that the city of Asheville become it own affordable housing developer to build deeply affordable housing. Our ability to finance such projects puts us in a better position than private developers.

What role do you see the arts sector playing in our city or county?

Goldsmith: I see the arts sector as one of the primary factors that draw people to visit and settle in Asheville. It is one of the current major economic drivers for our city and county, and as we grow we need to keep the arts sector in mind. Finally, Asheville’s vibrant and diverse creative culture is one of the things that makes Asheville truly special for people who live and grow up here.

Lee: I would argue that, more than our architecture and mountain scenery, arts and artists are what make Asheville feel distinctive and vibrant. If a lot else changed, nourishing our arts scene could keep us feeling like the quirky, progressive, exciting arts town we love. Artists are canaries in our affordability coal mine, too. A city that prices out its artists is on the verge of pricing out all low-wage workers, entrepreneurs, young people and retirees, too.

McCarthy: Our musicians, artists, and performers are central to our city’s cultural identity. When I ask people what they love about Asheville, this is usually at the top of the list. It’s a top reason why people visit, move, and stay here. Art is an essential form of human expression – we should be supporting it, and making sure that artists continue to have a home here.

Roney: We know how to address, build, navigate, challenge, and shift culture. We are living libraries of stories, paintings, sculpture, dances, and songs. We can map solutions and document next steps. We realize dreams of the possible and impossible. We collaborate and exemplify taking care. We’re what brought us here and will keep us together, regardless of who comes to gawk or appreciate. We are what makes Asheville memorable, interesting, and like every attempt to capture the view of a WNC sunset, impossible to experience after it’s gone.

Townsend: The City of Asheville seems to be taking small steps towards healing and reconciliation as it relates to the harm that has been done to the local Black community. Part of healing and reconciliation includes telling the truth, even when it is difficult. I believe the arts sector can support community members in the healing process by creating the space for truth-telling to be done through using art. Also, as we begin to figure out what equity and inclusion actually mean for our city, I believe the arts sector should also be holding that question as well and ensuring that the local creative scene is not excluding the people who often get left out of the picture that is often painted of Asheville.

Turner: The arts, from murals to poetry nights to live shows, contribute immensely to the culture and economic impact in our community. Creatives are what keeps Asheville unique and vibrant. In a broad sense, we’re doing well. Our creative sector incomes are trending upward. Our CVI – Creative Vitality Index  – is 1.25, outpacing the national average of 1. That said, we need to continue developing and supporting the arts community in the ways we can’t see in the CVI, including growing affordable opportunities for housing and studio space. 

Young: I see the arts as a critical part of our society. It is an to empowering the hearts and minds of people. When activists are displaying images of children suffering from poverty or oppression in our community in their campaigns, this is the art pulling the heartstrings of society’s elite and powerful. Art is the catalyst for change. Art is what makes an area the place to be. Artist make areas of a city desirable before anyone else notices this. Artist culture precedes many of the development and economic growth.

Do you support the proposed renovations to Thomas Wolfe Auditorium? Why or why not?

Goldsmith: The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium needs significant renovations, and the most recent proposal would certainly address many of those needs. I am, however, concerned about the price tag and the source of the funding. I would expect the Tourism Development Authority to cover the majority of those costs, with the rest of the funding to come from private donors. However, I will advocate for prioritizing the use of TDA funding for public infrastructure needs, such as transit and services that benefit not only tourists, but our residents as well. That will likely mean that the proposed renovation will need to be scaled-back or rely more heavily on private donations.

Lee: Of course I support them. Thomas Wolfe has needed repairs for a long time. The designs shared last month look good and could put the auditorium on its way to being a new arts centerpiece for the South. I’m reluctant, though, to say the renovations should be funded by the TDA at the expense of other local needs, and there’s no way city taxpayers could bear the $100 million price tag. If I were on council, I would help lead a capital campaign bringing in area industries like GE, Biltmore Farms and others. And I would support revenue bonds to cover part of the cost. We need the renovations done. They’re long overdue. I just want to be creative and wise about budgeting for them.

McCarthy: I have serious concerns about the renovation’s $100 million price tag, and the proposed plan for funding. The facility’s manager says he will seek $60-70 million from the Tourism Development Authority (TDA). Last year, the TDA allocated $6 million to local projects. At this rate, this project could monopolize that funding for 10 years. He will also seek $5-10 million from Asheville, which is facing upcoming budget shortfalls, and struggling to pay for extended bus service hours. I’m open to supporting this project in the future if these concerns are addressed, but as it stands, I believe this money could be much more helpful to our arts community if it was invested in affordable housing and expanded transit hours.

Roney: Not yet and not this way. We are woven together, and need each other to participate in community-based solutions. We’re talking about a decade of spending up to $100-million dollars in taxes from the hotel industry, and that accountability belongs to all of us. What will an investment from occupancy taxes towards our resilient future look like? First, we must address our deep wounds from red-lining and urban renewal. We need to invest in deeply-affordable housing through creative and collaborative solutions: the Asheville-Buncombe Community Land Trust, housing for poor and working folks, equity-building tiny home villages, and more. We need to address our crumbling infrastructure; secure our food and water systems; restore our tree canopy; connect our neighbors and visitors through an accessible multimodal network; and in doing these things, secure training for quality, local jobs as we move towards community-wide efforts to transition from fossil fuels. Then, we’ll have a foundation we can be sure to grow on with our neighbors as our mountain home realizes its potential to be one of the most beautiful, sustainable places to live.

Townsend: I support the much-needed renovations to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. However, I am following the information that local reporters are sharing, and I have questions. As of now, the City of Asheville is struggling with prioritizing things such as increasing wages for city employees, transit, and funding to meet environmental justice goals. I want to engage in more community lead conversations about what our investment and divestment priorities need to be in order for us to get what we need, and a few things we want.

Turner: I support the idea that we need to update the space to be safer to use, to attract more events, and to support our arts community. It is not clear if there was sufficient community input on design and priorities. The price tag was an unexpected shock. I see many ways the city needs 100M, including infrastructure, affordable housing, road resurfacing, sidewalks, transit planning, arts installations and planning, UDO overhaul, and moving to $15 per hour for employees of the city of Asheville. I do not support using all of the 10 year tourism tax funding (approx 70M) going to this effort. Part of the tax revenues could help cover a bond that funds the renovations. 

I was encouraged by the first initiative being a philanthropic fundraising effort and we need to see how far those efforts get. The city has skilled and effective personnel in place to pull this off. Last years move to rebrand as Harrah’s produced millions in seed monies towards the Thomas Wolfe; they are not starting with zero. 

Young: I support renovations to our city owned facility. The Thomas Wolfe is a vital part of our city’s cultural experiences on any given night. Also, the city must maintain its catalog of city owned facilities. In the past other councils have neglected our city owned facilites and we are paying for that now by not making significant influxes of cash early on so wouldn’t be having such a major conversation now. More recently the city has made solid obligations to Thomas Wolfe in the form of more meaningful funding for repairs . This is a basic form of being good stewards of city owned assets. How we pay for this is a different argument. To not take care of our assets would be a great disservice to this community on its most basic level as city and councilmember.

The City of Asheville's Public Art Masterplan was created in 2001. Would you be supportive of a new city/county public art master plan? What would you like to see included in this plan?

Goldsmith: I will support an update to our Public Art Masterplan, and will advocate for taking a holistic approach to addressing the inclusion of art, renewable energy, and public greenspaces in our future development. I would like to see the revised plan feature more work from our underrepresented communities in order highlight and celebrate our diversity.

Lee: Yes, I would. I would like to see renovation and updates of city hall included, as well as provision for public art in more neighborhoods than downtown. I’d like advice on how the city can better support community-led public-art initiatives like murals artistic elements incorporated into public works like sidewalks and retaining walls. A few years ago, as a board member of the East West Asheville Neighborhood Association, I helped lead an effort to place artistic markers in a sidewalk being poured in my neighborhood. The bureaucratic processes became overwhelming, and we eventually abandoned the project. A clearer and more streamlined process would have gone a long way to getting more public art in West Asheville. I’d like a Master Plan to set out more options like that.

McCarthy: Asheville’s public art is a great resource for our City. We have come a long way since 2001, so I would be open to supporting a new master plan if it is supported by the arts community. One of my favorite examples of public art is the Triangle Park Mural downtown – it tells the story of the East End/Valley Street neighborhood where I live, and sheds light on its history. I would like to see more art that teaches about our history and our leaders. Let’s use public art to teach about the American Indian nations who were here before it was called Asheville, about the City’s historical mistreatment of our black neighborhoods, and about our community leaders who are battling injustice today.

Roney: Yes. We are capable of a plan that engages our brilliant leaders and change makers while investing in our youth. After volunteering hundreds of hours with fellow volunteers on the Transit Master Plan to ensure the best possible outcome, I understand a plan like this is must be a community-led engagement effort that centers equity & inclusion, not a reaction to an out-of-town consultant agency’s plan. We can model collaboration that will last, from engaging our local language justice efforts to expanding capacity at our community centers–I agree when I hear this could mean Asheville being a place to live and to visit that wouldn’t have so many damages to disguise. If connecting and skill-sharing in an intentional process by and for people most impacted by gentrification, displacement, and trauma sounds like a cause for community celebration, I hope you’ll join me in building community, sending liaisons, reporting back for those who can’t be in the room when decisions are being made, and getting busy about this kind of work.

Townsend: I am in support of a new city/county public art masterplan. I would like the plan to include a way to honor the communities that were demolished due to urban renewal and gentrification. I would like the plan to include a focus on youth. I would also like to see the plan be rooted in community engagement and collective community art.

Turner: I would. And I’m glad to see this rising up as a need. Many of our planning documents are aging out, including our UDO and Design Guidelines for Downtown and the Riverfront. 

An updated Public Art Master Plan could promote and encourage place-based planning and identify how creatives and art can build on our existing culture, make locals feel at home, and attract visitors. Goals could include functional public art like crosswalks and street tweaks, traffic calming, musical installations, creative bus shelters, dancing crosswalks, and murals that share our community history.

Young: Yes. I love to hear from the community at large but personally I would love to see more public art displays around the city that would highlight the uniqueness of the history of these respective areas. I would also like to see dedicated housing for artist and more co-working spaces for creatives. Finally I would love to see more opportunities for artist to live and work and be able to contribute to the cities public art through city sponsored fellowships.

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