The early part of the first day of the City of Rocky Mount’s 2021 retreat in Asheville became a scene of Asheville’s top day-to-day municipal executive opening the floor to a question-and-answer session.
At one point, Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell said, “The biggest challenge right now from a social perspective that Asheville has is around — and I hope I use the correct word — we’re moving away from homelessness to houselessness.
“That is our biggest issue,” Campbell said. “And if you have driven (through) our community, you probably see tents and you probably see panhandlers — and you probably see a lot of things that I would suggest to you that we’re not ashamed of.
“And this may be taken in a negative way. How can a city manager say you’re not ashamed of it?” she said. “Because I think that it is a national issue that we have got to address — and that if you are hiding that issue in your communities intentionally, shame on you.”
The city’s 2021 retreat began on Wednesday afternoon. Rocky Mount officials will be conducting business today and Friday at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville.
Rocky Mount’s City Council majority wants to gather details from Asheville officials for the future development of housing in Rocky Mount.
The Rocky Mount officials later Wednesday afternoon went on a tour of project locations in Asheville.
Campbell earlier Wednesday afternoon emphasized to the Rocky Mount officials that she is not proud that Asheville has tents but that her city’s goal is to house anybody wanting to be housed.
At the same time, Campbell said that is a “tough nut to crack” without resources.
“And I don’t mean just money,” Campbell said. “I mean facilities and people who are trained to help people transition from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and drug addiction to case-manage those people through some very, very difficult, sometimes years, to be able to get to a point where they literally want to be housed.”
She noted that one will not see in Asheville families who are homeless but generally individuals who are homeless, for a variety of reasons.
She said that while what is going on is a huge problem, her city is working at this from the perspective of Asheville, in almost everything her city does, always saying this a community issue.
She made clear she believes community building is “a contact sport” with all hands on deck, meaning nonprofit organizations, religious organizations and the private sector are engaged.
News reports in February said a nonprofit that works with Asheville’s homeless population announced plans to acquire a former Days Inn motel to house homeless people.
Campbell spoke about her city’s situation moments after receiving questions from Rocky Mount City Councilman Andre Knight.
Knight asked about the progress of revitalizing downtown Asheville and about sustainable and minority ownership in downtown Asheville.
Knight also asked about how gentrification affected African-American communities in Asheville and what the Asheville City Council’s take on gentrification is moving forward.
Campbell has been Asheville city manager since 2018, following a previous long career with the City of Charlotte, including a decade as the Queen City’s planning director, so she understands the role of a downtown.
Campbell said that Asheville, like most communities nationwide, began investing in leveraging and engaging in public-private partnerships downtown but that Asheville “focused on local” instead of trying to secure commitments from big chains.
Campbell made clear that Asheville wants to be unique, not the kind of place that prompts one to say Asheville is just like the previous city one just left.
“In terms of minority business and entrepreneurship, we are woefully lagging from that perspective,” she said. “We are working on that, but we have a long, long way to go.”
She noted that if one speaks with locals in Asheville, then one hears about the effect of urban renewal projects in terms of having caused displacements of minority communities.
Gentrification refers to repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area, followed by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and often resulting in displacing earlier, usually poorer residents.
Campbell said her city is starting out with a policy of having mixed-income communities, particularly if a housing development is one her city is investing in.
Campbell also received questions from Rocky Mount City Councilman Reuben Blackwell.
They included what the conversation was around her city’s previous City Council in July 2020 approving reparations for her city’s Black residents, what has happened and where the matter is now.
News reports have made clear Asheville’s plan is not meant to be a set of direct payments to Black residents but rather to have a system of programs to help them overcome discrimination.
Campbell said she believes her city’s concern about reparations came about as a result of a moment in time of her city’s then-council seizing the moment of the social unrest in connection with the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and a number of other events.
“And if ever there was ever a moment in time where we could get unanimous approval of an initiative like this that focused on social injustice, social inequity, racial inequity, it was this moment,” Campbell said. “And now that we have seized that moment, now we’ve got to do something with it. And that’s what we’re in the process of doing now because what we don’t want reparations to be is a moment. We want it to be a movement.”
She spoke about what is next in phases, with the first phase focusing on “truth-telling” by speakers in looking at the past, present and future, followed by another phase focusing on having a commission to come up with short-, medium- and long-term recommendations.
She said experts will be delivering strategies for the short, medium and long term.
She also told the Rocky Mount officials that Asheville is a proud little community with big dreams and that Asheville tries to do things in a big way.
“But I hope that we do them responsibly. And that’s what we’re going to try to do, particularly with this reparations effort and what we try to do with everything that we do,” she said.