Downtown Asheville Rejects Bonds

“At least the town is now aware of the fact that we have a definite problem downtown”

– Former Asheville Mayor Gene Ochsenreiter Jr (1981).

Asheville Voters Reject Bond Issue, Asheville Citizen, November 4,1981.As the elections of 1981 came closer the politics of the mall’s development came to a head. Save Downtown Asheville adjusted its strategy and won the vote. Bob Long helped to create a new organization called Taxpayers Against Bonds. The organization mainly comprised of local businessmen and leaders of the Save Downtown Asheville movement. Taxpayers Against Bonds was a separate organization from Save Downtown Asheville despite many overlapping club members. The grassroots movement had dozens of locals donating time and effort to spread the word of the bonds and referendum. They made posters, they sent letters in the mail, and they put the message in citizens’ faces that bonds meant more taxes. 1

"Asheville Voters Reject Bond Issue," Asheville Citizen, November 4, 1981.
Asheville Citizen breaks down the bond votes, November 4, 1981

Newspaper articles ran explaining how the bonds would work and what this meant for Asheville businesses. Save Downtown Asheville, at this point Taxpayers Against Bonds, argued that the risk that bonds created. If the mall were to fail, then the city would be responsible for paying off the debt, and even while the mall was going to be built, taxes would have to be raised.

Before the vote a televised debate aired at First Baptist Church. It aired on WLOS on October 23, 1981. Wayne Caldwell, and attorneys John Powell and Bob Long spoke on the side of the Save Downtown Asheville, while the city sent James Daniels, senior vice-president with North Carolina National Bank Walter Galdding, and Sister Veronica Schumacher. Before the debate, Save Downtown Asheville spent weeks salting the audience with questions, preparing their side, and knew every angle to be debated. The debate was ruled by finances. Gladding stated that the “project won’t cost a dime if we do it, but if we don’t; we will have to make up the loss of revenue at a later time.” Taxpayers against bonds fought this logic, arguing that the interest alone was too detrimental for taxpayers to face. 2

"Asheville Voters Reject Bond Issue," Asheville Citizen, November 4, 1981.
Supporters of Save Downtown Asheville celebrate at Gatsby’s as the success of their campaign is announced. Photo taken by Gary Fields. Photo courtesy of the Asheville Citizen Times.

On Election Day 1981, the voters struck down the bonds with a margin of 2 to 1. Roughly 55 percent of registered voters participated in the vote. Celebration of the malls defeat could be seen at Gatsby’s, a local bar and gathering point for anti-mall forces. With the bonds defeated the Downtown Commercial Complex was annihilated. The day of the vote Caldwell was reported as saying “I’m very tired, but I’m very happy.” 3 However the public came to be aware of how bad the downtown had become. Roy Trantham, the mayor of Asheville at the time, created a commission for downtown, which forced Caldwell and Daniels to work together on developing new revitalization efforts. 4

With more people moving to Asheville with more money in 1982, people started to see more of downtown coming to life. Historic preservation and local focus became the new ideal. Nearly three decades later the city has followed through with those ideals. Many of the city officials continued to work with the anti-mall support in that vision. Caldwell went on to serve on many historical and downtown commissions and been celebrated as a local author. Kathryn Long after the vote went on to focus on her business, which continues to this day.

For more information about what could have been lost click here, to see what current businesses stand, where the mall could have stood.

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Notes:

  1. Caldwell and Long, Interview with site author, March 12, 2015
  2. Caldwell and Long, Interview with site author
  3. “Asheville Voters Reject Bond Issue,” Asheville Citizen, November 4, 1981.
  4. Caldwell and Long, Interview with site author, March 12, 2015
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