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Opponents launch anti-BID campaign ahead of Asheville City Council vote

An anti-BID organizer spray painting a cardboard sign outside of Firestorm Books in West Asheville.
Laura Hackett
An anti-BID organizer spray painting a cardboard sign outside of Firestorm Books in West Asheville.

A proposal for a new downtown Asheville tax district – more than a year in the making – could move forward with a City Council vote scheduled for Tuesday.

So far, the proposed business improvement district, or BID, has the backing of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and Asheville Downtown Association, but has sparked skepticism and opposition among some business owners and residents.

Hannah Gibbons, a worker-owner at Sow True Seed, is part of a growing opposition to the BID in downtown. They were one of more than a dozen people who gathered earlier this month at Firestorm Books to spray paint cardboard signs and pen letters to Asheville City Council members.

Gibbons said organizers in Asheville have been inspired by folks from No Bid Roc, an advocacy organization based in Rochester, New York that successfully defeated a BID attempt in March.

“We got on a call with them and got a lot of great ideas. And then we got together as a group and decided to spread the word about it,” they said.

Sow True Seed, an employee-owned garden and seed shop in downtown, is one of four local organizations to publicly oppose the BID in an online petition launched in late April.

The petition – co-signed by Asheville Food & Beverage United, The Steady Collective and Asheville Democratic Socialists of America – has racked up more than 700 signatures.

For Gibbons and co-owner Chloe Grund, a BID would not solve the biggest challenge they’re facing in downtown Asheville: affordability.

“Neither of us live within the city limits and I think the sole reason for that is just the lack of affordable housing. That's pushed us out,” Gibbons said. “The real problem is affordability.”

On Tuesday, Asheville City Council members are expected to vote on what would be the first major step in creating the new tax district. Once established, City Council members could direct spending and programs in the district or hire a third party to control BID services.

If approved, the district would place a new tax on downtown property owners. The money could be used for beautification and public safety initiatives.

Proponents of the BID include the Asheville Downtown Association and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, which paid for a 2023 feasibility study for the proposed district to pitch to City Council members.

In a February survey conducted by the Downtown Association, around 75% of 410 downtown stakeholders said they would consider paying for enhanced safety and hospitality services in downtown Asheville. Less than 11% of respondents saw no benefit from a BID, according to the study.

In an operational plan proposed by the Downtown Association and Chamber, the estimated $1.25 million annual budget would be controlled by a primarily unelected board.

The plan also includes a group of between eight and 16 uniformed “ambassadors” in polo shirts who would clean up downtown and engage with members of the public – from tourists looking for directions to unhoused people in crisis.

Grund expressed concern about the BID’s role in providing a higher level of cleanliness and safety downtown.

“Unfortunately, I think the implied meaning behind clean up doesn't mean just literal trash or garbage that is on the streets, but also the people that the BID doesn't deem useful to their marketing or business exploits,” Grund said.

These concerns, along with criticisms of the BID’s public input process and governance structure, were validated by some of the Asheville Downtown Commission at its April 26 meeting. The commission voted 4-4 on the measure, which resulted in a failed motion to approve the proposed BID. The commission is an advisory body and the tie vote does not directly affect City Council’s ability to establish a BID in downtown.

Asheville City Council.
Laura Hackett
Asheville City Council.

As BID moves to Asheville City Council, governance remains unclear

Tuesday’s expected City Council vote could establish a new tax district downtown but details on its exact governance remain unclear.

City Attorney Brad Branham said there has been a “tremendous amount of confusion around this subject.”

“The ordinance itself merely establishes the BID, that's all that it does,” he explained at City Council’s May 9 briefing.

That means the plan for the BID that the Chamber and Downtown Association proposed is not necessarily what City Council will implement.

If passed, the first vote would establish geographic boundaries and taxation of the district.

But how the BID would be governed — and who would control the direction of funds — remains unknown.

Branham said that process will be determined, if the BID is formally established, through a “secondary document,” that would include details about the management structure or advisory board.

Before the council agrees on a governance structure and the services a BID would provide, the city would need to go through a public input process, according to Branham.

According to a May 7 memo produced by city staff, the city has several different governance models it could choose from:

  • A council-appointed advisory committee that makes recommendations to City Council and provides financial, program and contractor oversight.
  • A BID directly managed by the city but with a private entity responsible for the delivery of special services. (In Raleigh and Durham, the cities work with a registered nonprofit that can opt to subcontract with a third-party vendor to deliver services.) 
  • A BID primarily managed by a separate organization that contracts with the city. An example of this exists in Charlotte, where Charlotte Center City Partners (CCCP) administers services through an annual contract. While CCCP is governed by an independent board of directors, Charlotte City Council is responsible for appointing the slate of nominees for the CCCP Board of Directors.

The governance structure could also be a hybrid model that incorporates several of these models.
The BID money could be used for initiatives that go beyond the ambassador program including “enhanced maintenance of public infrastructure and facilities, marketing and promotion, events, parking management, economic development, construction and/or maintenance of capital improvements, and the enhancement of other city services or functions,” according to the memo.

At the briefing meeting, council members Sage Turner and Maggie Ullman both expressed a desire to have a resolution included with the BID vote that includes a clearer plan of the BID’s governance structure, but council did not appear to move forward with that idea. No resolution is on the agenda for the May 14 meeting.

For Gibbons, the lack of clarity around governance is frustrating.

“I think that's the most concerning part,” they said. “They want to pass this BID through and then decide on that later.”

The BID must be voted upon twice by the City Council. The first reading will occur on May 14, with a second and final reading scheduled for June 11.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.
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