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Locals and Tourists: The Boom Town Balance

Credit WCQS
Sgt. Evan Coward is part of Asheville Police Department's Special Downtown Unit, one of the busiest beats in the city.

Mountain views, hiking trails an exploding food scene and more breweries per capita than anywhere else in U.S.   It’s easy to see why the Asheville area is spilling over with tourists and newcomers.   The boom is a boost for the economy but often makes for a busier and sometimes more challenging day for police and other first responders whose job it is to care for both tourists and the people who live  here.  WCQS’s Helen Chickering reports.

Even on a cold weekday winter night, Downtown Asheville is buzzing.  Here, there’s something for everyone, tons of shops, good food, craft cocktails and of course, beer.  Downtown is home to the largest number of alcohol establishments in Buncombe County.  Lexington Avenue Brewery is one of them.

Jonathan Chassner, LAB,  “It hardly slows down regardless of season.”

Here more from Jonathan Chassner, Head Brewer at Lexington Avenue Brewery in Asheville.

Jonathan Chassner is Lab’s head brewer “Last couple of years, it’s really been round the year pretty busy, used to be a sleepy town in winter, not so much anymore, “ says Chassner.

Sergeant Evan Coward has noticed the growth too. Sgt. Evan Coward, Asheville Police Department,  “When I was growing up, Asheville was somewhere you went during the day if you went shopping, Tops for Shoes, right  behind us,  has been there since I was little.  You were not encouraged to come down at night, it was a whole different place, more or less deserted in the night hours.”

Today Coward is supervisor with the Asheville Police Department’s downtown unit. Officers patrol by foot or on bike, and help keep tourists, buskers, business owners and locals safe. It’s one of the busiest beats in the city.   As we walked it, Coward pointed out a number of buildings undergoing renovation.

“It’s definitely changed, sidewalks are full, people here for all sorts of reasons, “ says Coward, “People moving here to live, retiring here, trying to life here make a life for themselves, a completely different Asheville than I grew up with.”

A conversation with Sgt. Evan Coward, with the Asheville Police Department's Downtown Unit.

Downtown isn’t the only place that’s feeling the impact.

“The population is increasing, volume has steadily going up over the last 15  years,” says Dr. Chris Flanders. Dr. Flanders is the Medical Director of the Emergency Department at Mission Hospital.  He says while more patients are coming through the Emergency Department, the type of injuries have pretty much stayed the same.

“In summer we see a lot more orthopedic injuries, people biking, road bike accidents, extreme sports races,” says Flanders, “You also get falls from your regular tourist places like downtown, and people trying to navigate stairs at Biltmore house. “ 

HC: “We’ve got a ton of breweries, seeing any impact from that?”

“Good question, I can’t say I’ve really seen any change in alcohol related visits with the increase in breweries, I’m not sure it’s people going to the breweries for a beer that are really causing the issues, so no real change that I can tell, but don’t have any data to back that up, though,” says Flanders.

Hear more from Dr. Chris Flanders, Medical Director of the Emergency Department at Mission Hospital in Asheville.

Data from Buncombe County Emergency Services shows overall just a small percentage of ambulance calls are for people with an out of town address, and there’s no breakout for alcohol-related calls.  Paramedic David Foster has been on the job for more 20 years and says it’s the growing number of homeless that has caught his attention.

Davis Foster, Paramedic, Buncombe County EMS,  “When I first started, the homeless population was very small and we knew most of them by name, and now there are hundreds. “

Kelly Fisher, Paramedic, Buncombe County EMS,  “You know I  met one from Austin Texas  last night, he got off the bus and had health issues and we took him to the hospital, and he said that he’d heard from some friends that this is a great place to be homeless.”

Paramedic Kelly Fisher says she too was surprised by the large numbers.

“Our homeless population is as diverse as the rest of the city. They come here on purpose because they hear so many good things about Asheville,” says Fisher, “So I think there is a little bit of a drain on the resources, that we’re attracting people because it’s seen as seen as beer city, this great place to live this great place to come and it does attract homeless people as well. It is interesting that homeless people would travel somewhere else to be homeless, but that is the case here.”An issue that has prompted discussion and debate over the impact of the homeless on parks and other public spaces.  Just one of the many growing pains felt by a friendly city, buzzing with activity, even in the dead of winter. 

Hear more of our conversation with Buncombe County Paramedics David Foster and Kelly Fisher.

For WCQS  news, I’m Helen Chickering

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.