What will Asheville City Center look like in ten years?

Innovative community leadership looks like a public buy-in design for the properties facing St. Lawrence Basilica and what’s now called US Cellular Center. That design thinking effort could have established strategy and been seeking capital right now. For what? For a public trust-oriented development for this, yes, very strategic site. But we still seem to be far from working as one movement made up of mostly the same concerned, active citizens, and leadership players. So we don’t have good options on the table.

There’s no way the public should simply “get out of the development business” as Citizen-Times columnist John Boyle suggests. The stakes are far too high for public silence, and I doubt folding up government is what Boyle wants. But better public strategy indeed is needed.

Why not pool our capabilities better now versus waiting until the risks of not going in a more sustainable, widely beneficial direction in Asheville, for Buncombe, for the state, and nation pile still higher? We have a good many sustainable innovators in Asheville and a good base for a fresh innovation and opportunity ecosystem. I’m saying we can do more, better, and faster and we might as well start now.

Another qualifier: I’m not suggesting the point is generally more, better, and faster real estate activities at maximum… but certainly I for one want to see Asheville real estate activities done in a better, more sustainable fashion. That’s not just about seeking more regulation. That’s about offering strategy investors can buy into as well. City of Asheville and the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte spent a lot of energy with Asheville Design Center in working out design principles for these strategic properties. Affordable housing is an option within these already existing development principles, so is green space, but so is another hotel. The public needs to work within these guidelines to get the best non-hotel/not-luxury condo outcome.

In the same way corporate branding shot a few bucks into Asheville Civic Center coffers and was looked at as a financing solution for Pack Place, the public can define the major elements of a development for—let’s call this development something at least temporarily—Asheville City Center. Asheville City Center could be an ongoing initiative with specific results on a timeline hosted by a new, dynamic, free-thinking, yet strategic version of our former local Federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities program, GroWNC.

It is possible to design an innovative building envelope that includes parkland… but includes concepts like OFFICE SPACE FOR WHITE COLLAR, GREEN COLLAR, and ’NO COLLAR’ JOBS… and actual job slots that lead to good career white-collar jobs of meaning. That’s why the BB&T move to more hotel and condo space is a poor indicator. How to move from an undesirable lack of preferred operations (e.g. business, government, and nonprofit jobs slots) offering great jobs our people can get into to a more vibrant, responsible innovation and opportunity ecosystem?

Let’s collaboratively design and back the development of this 21st century innovation and opportunity ecosystem we all need here in Asheville, for Buncombe County, the state, and nation. Design out what we don’t want as much as possible and relentlessly pursue what we do want. Be prepared to risk manage and adjust for unexpected consequences. Be flexible about our assumptions. Learn new strategy skills. If there is no improved process and no resources for that ideal process to ‘betterness’, that means more of the same imbalances in seeking preferred outcomes.

It’s true that as Vice Mayor Hunt states “when it’s a private transaction in the private sector” and the real estate market is on fire, indeed, development goes into empty lots. But this is about the future of Asheville City Center, and the livelihoods of our people. Not just what hoteliers want.

How can the public do more than be bystanders in Marc’s view? Are we really getting overwhelming value by focusing on property taxes and less the big wheel design of our economy and sustainability options?

Do we have a clear consistently updated understanding of our community risks, solution options, and alternative scenarios most of us agree on? We should have never allowed the GroWNC program to end.

Smart growth and managing a smart city isn’t simple. There’s little funding for ‘just parkland’ and we’ve got that with Pack Square Park. There’s only so much downtown footprint and a project with a new model of growth needs to go into this strategic site to set the bar higher for the future.

Asheville City Center is about that particular site at the intersection of Page Avenue and Haywood Street, but additionally how innovative (high value generation) yet sustainable projects and economics are forming out of downtown assets… and linking up with unmet needs across Asheville. Forming a new Asheville innovation and opportunity ecosystem is beyond the scope of this commentary. Readers are welcome to Internet search “Global Innovation Summit” to see an example of an innovation and opportunity ecosystem platform. Asheville City Center is about taking an honest look at what happened with initiatives like the Downtown Master Plan and GroWNC and making sustainability innovation a core economic development strategy for Asheville.

Capital goes where trends and innovative strategy go. That’s how to switch gears from more hotels at hyper speed to what works for Asheville. I can only suggest some new direction in getting to that “what works for Asheville” innovation X equation. It’s not possible for me to do more alone, but I do hope Asheville will better access our teamwork capabilities right now and start asking to set the bar higher. The ‘GroWNC II’/Federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities model needs to be ongoing because Asheville needs to share insight on these matters with other municipalities, and we need to see ourselves as not on our own but part of a Union with great potential and assets. So we have at least one model for a better innovation and opportunity ecosystem.

What’s next? Our 2015 city elections is a great chance to review the past and use those lessons learned and what the best examples of innovation and strategy can offer to make the 2015-2025 period of Asheville’s future and soon to be history not just about general, unspecific growth for Asheville; but a time to also be a serious actor in the fight against climate change and poverty. We want a cleaner, more inclusive city and that’s not just about what’s getting constructed on our real estate. But the visioning work and follow-up actions needs to form once again for the current challenge set. We’ve done a lot since the 80’s as a community and there’s much to build from.

It’s not easy to move forward and define a common understanding of what responsible strategy for Asheville is about in balance with our American freedoms. Some may feel everything is ‘fine’ and ‘that’s just the way things’ are. I know that’s not my stance. There is plenty to do faster and better in the way of sustainable development and results for the base of the economic pyramid.

Getting our Asheville City Center vision and strategies sorted is yet another resource base to develop… and Raleigh and the 114th congress seem to be working against forging a smarter balance between the private and public economies. Our politicians should be helping the nation to define at least ten major intersecting strategic arenas we can all agree on. We aren’t there yet and that’s definitely mysterious… and an alarming risk issue itself. When the chips are down and the risks are rising leadership is only partly about collaboration. There will be some current leaders who won’t be on the field after this year and the 2016 elections. We need a new direction.

Right now if there was an ‘Asheville Betterness Index’ most of us agreed on as the success criteria and barometer we’d be in negative risk territory hovering near the redline. In the same way our tourism and real estate sectors aren’t the be-all and end-all solution base to increased human capital development, economic equity, and Asheville’s role in addressing climate change… sustainable development isn’t some ‘green’ feel good notion or the process of complaining because Utopia hasn’t magically appeared. Sustainability is now a central strategic direction for the nation and the globe now. Please Internet search “sustainability Department of Defense” to get a sense of this change in direction.

For an example of honesty assessing our local strengths and weakness, an Asheville tourism Carbon Audit should reveal some serious risks. What’s involved in that economic development strategy, tourism + real estate development, we’ve always imagined as featuring a bulk of low paying jobs on one end and high value returns on the other, but otherwise an assumed ‘bread and butter’ aspect of Asheville civilization? Many have believed that economic dynamic of tourism and real estate development working together will always be good as is. Will it really when all the factors are in the open?

Where are we headed, Asheville? What does doing more, better, and faster honestly look like in contrast to our current local, state, national, and global risk register?

I am running for city council because we need people who are able and willing to hack a better way for this city, county, state, and nation. There is no lack of capital, just lack of responsible innovation. We need to revive GroWNC, get a community bank behind such an initiative, and design our future in the open. That’s Sustain Asheville.

Grant Millin is an Asheville management consultant and owns InnovoGraph LLC. He won a 2014 Global Innovation Summit scholarship for his Open Strategic Innovation for Communities solution. The Millin family owned T.S. Morrison & Co. during the 1980’s, which was Asheville’s oldest retail store until 2006. Grant’s father Lou was a founder of what is now the Asheville Downtown Association.

Posted in Asheville, Innovation and Opportunity Ecosystem.