Monday, September 14, 2009

Risk-takers key to Asheville's revitalization

Randy Hammer

As Pat Whalen likes to tell it, there were more pigeons than people in downtown Asheville 20-25 years ago.

Today, it's hard to imagine that places like the Grove Arcade, Malaprop's Bookstore, The Laughing Seed Café and the Haywood Park Inn were boarded-up buildings.

Whalen, who runs the development company Public Interest Projects, says the right combination of entrepreneurs and opportunities came together in the late '80s and early '90s to create a downtown revival that has been celebrated by urban planners and municipal governments across the country.

Whalen is frequently invited to give PowerPoint presentations to business and development groups about the revitalization of Asheville. The slide that particularly grabs people's attention is the one from the Census Bureau showing that downtown grew by 65 percent between 1990 and 2000. Most cities our size grew by just 9 percent that decade.

Last week, the Citizen-Times ran an excellent series by reporter Mark Barrett that chronicled not only the revitalization of the '90s, but also the ups and downs of Asheville's economy since the 1920s.

He also showed how the heiress Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil had an entrepreneurial spirit. When she needed to raise some money a year after the stock market crash of 1929, she opened the Biltmore House and grounds to adults willing to pay $2 a visit. It worked. More than 40,000 people toured the estate. Today, about a million visit each year.

While our current economic struggles, as well as the bust in the 1920s, played out in cities across the country, the downtown revival that took place in the late 1980s and '90s was unique to Asheville.

Much of the credit for the turnaround that began 25 years ago belongs to Julian Price and Roger McGuire, who have since passed away. They had a vision of what a boarded-up Asheville could be and provided people like Whalen and developer Chuck Tessier the capital to buy and renovate some of the city's abandoned buildings and landmarks.

Then the entrepreneurs, the risk-takers, stepped in, and while there were still more pigeons than people on the sidewalks, opened downtown businesses. More here.

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