Our Town Is (Still) Not a Mall

Our Town Is (Still) Not a Mall

April 17th, 2024

In 2012, our co-operative was part of a broad coalition of downtown businesses, grassroots organizations, and community members who fought, and derailed, an effort to privatize public space. The proposed Business Improvement District (BID) would have transferred public funds and significant authority over downtown to Asheville’s wealthiest “stakeholders.” Although deeply unpopular a decade ago, a nearly identical proposal is now quickly making its way through City Council with the goal of establishing a BID by June 30th. The Chamber of Commerce and others have further made clear their intention to pursue similar schemes in the River Arts District and West Asheville.

Because this new proposal is a virtual cut-and-paste of the one promoted by the Asheville Downtown Association in 2012, we’ve decided to republish our open letter on the topic from May of that year (below). Where the new proposal differs, we’ve noted the changes with highlighted text.

Many of us feel that we’ve reached a new low, in which our voices are not being heard and Asheville is more and more unlivable. What comes next is consequential: we can work to protect the vibrant spirit of our city while fighting to correct historic and ongoing injustices; or, under a ten-year BID term, we can watch as a few power brokers, insulated from democratic controls, transform our urban spaces to suit their needs.

A Downtown BID public hearing will take place April 23rd at 4pm at the Asheville Civic Center. More information can be found at sunshinelabs.org.

An Open Letter to City Council Re: the Proposed BID

May 29th, 2012

We are writing to you as a downtown business and community space concerned by the proposed Asheville Business Improvement District (BID) that will be considered by City Council on June 12th. As part of a formative network opposed to the BID, we want to share our concerns and extend an invitation to our community forum, to be held on Tuesday, June 5th at 5pm.

Business improvement districts began appearing in the 1980s and are modeled after shopping malls. Like malls, BIDs are viewed as distinct properties managed by a private entity and funded by their tenants. The problem of course is that our community is not a mall. Cafes, bars and public spaces constitute the core of our social vitality and the foundation of a functioning democracy. We should be wary of attempts to privatize governance over these spaces, particularly when such governance excludes the voices of average people.

The proposed Asheville Business Improvement District is explicitly plutocratic in nature. Its 13 member board will be comprised of 3 business owners and 9 property owners, with seats allocated on the basis of holdings. This virtually ensures that the BID will represent the interests of Asheville’s wealthy and not its workers, the unhoused, youths, ethnic minorities and political activists. This structure is undemocratic and, quite possibly, unconstitutional. (The 2024 proposal maintains this approach but increases the board to add a token seat for one residential tenant. No seats are allocated to downtown workers and only three members are required to actually live in Asheville.)

The proposed Asheville Business Improvement District is a misappropriation of public funds for private gain. In addition to a 7 cent tax increase within its jurisdiction, the BID’s starting budget will require over $300k in city and county money plus $130k in expected sales tax revenue distributed by the county after its first year of operation. This is a redistribution of wealth into downtown from parts of our community that are already underfunded and underserved. Further, as tax increases are passed on to renters, we can be sure that the cost to downtown will be squeezed from its tenants and small businesses owners, not the landlords who dominate the BID. (The 2024 proposal ups the ante with a 9.19 cent tax on commercial and residential property. And while a lump sum investment from the city is no longer needed, the Chamber of Commerce expects to receive $200k in reimbursements over the first four years.)

The proposed Asheville Business Improvement District is a civil rights nightmare. Over three quarters of the BID’s budget will be spent on a “Clean & Safe” program that includes the placement of private security officers in downtown to target quality-of-life crimes (loitering, panhandling, graffiti, etc). In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder, our community is increasingly sensitive to the role of private security in public spaces and business improvement districts around the country have already been implicated in civil and human rights abuses.

In August of 1960, students from Stephens Lee High School staged civil rights sit-ins at Woolworth, the Asheville Public Library, Aston Park, local movie theaters and Winn-Dixie. Young people of color like these student heroes would undoubtedly find themselves on the wrong side of the Asheville BID “Clean & Safe” program. By adopting a BID, City Council would be responsible for opening the door to a new era of economic, and by corollary, racial segregation. (The 2024 proposal separates cleaning and “safety”—i.e. policing—expenditure, with 59% of the $1.25 million budget going to the latter.)

There is no mandate for the proposed Asheville Business Improvement District. Proponents of the BID point to its inclusion within the Downtown Master Plan (DMP), a process that launched with much fanfare in the public eye but ended behind closed doors in what one participant described as an “undemocratic delegation of power into the hands of appointed, insulated boards...” The BID emerged from just such a board, the Downtown Management Committee, whose only attempt to gather quantitative data from stakeholders was a 2011 email survey of business owners that included no questions related to the desirability of a BID. Nevertheless, several respondents chose to write in their objections to the creation of such a district and a third-party survey cited by the Mountain Xpress indicates overwhelming opposition. (Despite months of moral panic over crime and homelessness in downtown, there is still no evidence of popular support for a BID. Even among business and property owners, the feasibility study commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce puts downtown support at just “3 out of 5.” Given their determination to limit public input, this is likely an overestimate.)

Asheville is a unique city with colorful inhabitants and vibrant small businesses. We believe that the proposed business improvement district would do irreversible harm to the social and economic health of our community. The BID cannot be reformed as it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of our urban space. Downtown is not a mall -- an expanse of sanitized corridors for isolated shoppers moving between commercial spaces. It is a commons to which we must preserve access for all and for which we must ensure domination by none.