We first visited Asheville in 2003 and moved here in 2005. At the time, Asheville was widely touted as one of the best places to retire. The city (2005 population was 75,000) had a thriving and diverse art culture and offered many opportunities for older-adult community participation and continuing education. Not only that, Asheville was home to The Biltmore Estate, one of the top tourist destinations in North Carolina. The city was the perfect base for exploring the bounty of mountains, rivers, waterfalls and forests that give the area its unique geographic identity.
What could go wrong?
Tourism and the commercial development that local business interests encouraged have made our downtown streets at least 50% more congested than they were 15 years ago, whereas our population has grown by “only” 20% since then. I find that I cannot drive anywhere in the Haywood Street / Grove Arcade area without feeling like I’m playing some high-stress video game whose goal is to avoid hitting pedestrians walking out from everywhere. Thanks to tourism (I cannot blame retirees — there are only so many times a year retirees shop for hand-made chocolates and high-end hiking gear), we stopped venturing into downtown Asheville on weekend evenings some 10 years ago. And then we stopped visiting downtown Asheville on any summer evening about 5 years ago. Now, unless we have out-of-town visitors, we pretty much wait until January to go downtown.
Asheville, or shall I say, the business and political forces in the area, pushed and prodded and pushed some more until this city finally became the Myrtle Beach of the Mountains. Local thoroughfares bottle up with traffic at 8am and 4pm as if this city were twice its size. Commercial interests, not just hotels — but including hotels, who have doubled in number in the last ten years — exploited the “local charm” of downtown and have nearly sold it out from under us. City mothers and fathers have not responded. They seem to be paralyzed.
It seems that no one ever does a study about when the golden goose is too big to lay her next egg. Instead, the idea is to just keep feeding the goose until it dies.
Three days after this post was published, my wife convinced me to go downtown to visit the Southern Highlands Craft Fair at the US Cellular Center (top of this map). It was a pleasant October Friday. We arrived downtown about 10:30 in the morning. I dropped off my wife at the door and headed to the Civic Center Garage. It was full, of course. So I drove around the block to the Rankin Garage. I found a police car blocking the entrance, since that garage was full as well. I drove two more blocks over to the Wall Street Garage. It was full. And all the on-street parking I passed along the way, full.
I finally stumbled upon an on-street space at the corner of Otis and French Broad Avenue, a quarter-mile away, and hustled over to the civic center to rejoin my wife fifteen minutes after I had dropped her off.
After the show, I left my wife at the door (she recently had knee surgery) and returned to the car. I headed south on Otis so that I could circle around the block and pick her up at the front of the civic center. At least, that was the plan — I sat through two red-light cycles at Otis and Patton waiting to turn left, which was impossible due to congestion on Patton. I decided not to sit through another — I did a u-turn from the left-turn lane, circled around and approached the civic center from the opposite direction, and then did another u-turn to pick up my wife waiting in front of the building.
I figure I spent about thirty minutes total dealing with parking and traffic, for the sake of a forty-minute visit to a craft show. But I would have experienced the same frustration if my reason for going downtown was an eye appointment. The fact that this is now the norm in Asheville is why I say my city has been handed over to the tourism industry, as our hapless city and county leaders for the most part looked on.