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5 Questions for Gary Jackson

The city manager of Asheville, North Carolina, manages the daily operations of this tourist destination and Blue Ridge Mountain graffiti-free, accessory dwelling unit-friendly community

Aerial View Of Downtown Asheville, North Carolina, Trees, Building, Blue Ridge Mountains In Background, Livable Communities, 5 Questions With Gary Jackson

Photo courtesy city of Asheville

The Blue Ridge Mountains are visible from downtown Asheville.

Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, the city of Asheville is home to nearly 90,000 residents spread across the city's 45 square miles.

Most nonresidents and tourists know Asheville as the site of the Biltmore Estate, a chateau-inspired 1890s-era Vanderbilt mansion that, with more than 250 rooms and four acres of floor space, remains the largest privately owned house in the United States.  

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Working five miles away in a less ornate but still architecturally impressive City Hall is Gary Jackson, Asheville's city manager since 2005. Asheville has a council-manager form of local government, which is prescribed by its charter. Under the council-manager system, the elected Asheville City Council provides leadership by establishing the city's policies. Jackson manages the city's 1,000 employees and daily operations and executes Council-established laws and policies.

1. Describe Asheville, North Carolina, for people who've never been to the area.

Asheville has a colorful and active downtown surrounded by mountains and natural areas that offer opportunities for outdoor activities. The scenery is outstanding, no matter the season. There's a lot of distinctive Art Deco architecture that pairs with an artsy flavor on the streets.

The Asheville City Hall itself serves as a sort of Art Deco centerpiece, with an eclectic design that incorporates pink marble with a red tile dome. Built in 1928, it's on the National Register of Historic Places.

Asheville is also noted for its thriving craft beer industry, with clusters of tasting rooms in several parts of town. We've also been called a "foodtopia" because we have so many independent restaurants. The Biltmore Estate is located here and is our biggest tourist draw. The River Arts District, another hub for visitors, is a place where people can visit with artists in their studios, not just look at or buy art.

2. What makes Asheville a livable community for people of all ages, and especially for older adults?

Asheville and Buncombe County serve as a regional hub for medical services and jobs. We're home to Mission Hospital, which is staffed by physicians in more than 50 specialties. It's our largest regional medical facility with more than 800 beds and nearly 10,000 employees, including over 1,800 registered nurses.

Asheville plays a critical role in the regional economy. We currently have the lowest unemployment rate in the state, down to 3.7 percent this year. Our residents enjoy a great quality of life with little traffic and a low crime rate. In addition to all the visual arts offerings, Asheville has a minor league baseball team, the Asheville Tourists, a symphony and a lyric opera. There's a vibrant theater scene here, too.

As a city we've made multimodal transportation a priority with the addition of many miles of bicycle lanes, sidewalks and greenways being built and prioritized in our capital improvement program. Our Parks and Recreation Department maintains 54 public parks, six miles of greenways, 11 community centers and lots of programs for young people, senior citizens and outdoor enthusiasts.

Biltmore Mansion, Asheville, North Carolina, Tourist Attraction, Livable Communities, 5 Questions With Gary Jackson

Photo by James Pintar, 123rf

Constructed by George Washington Vanderbilt II in the 1890s, the Biltmore Estate, Asheville's most popular tourist attraction, is still family owned.

3. What needs to be improved or changed about Asheville to make it a more livable community for people of all ages, and especially for older adults?

Asheville is experiencing rapid development. That brings opportunities, often in the form of jobs and increased tax revenue, as well as infrastructure challenges. Over the course of the last few years, the City Council prioritized funding for maintenance of existing streets, sidewalks and greenways and increased funding for new infrastructure.

The Parks and Recreation Department offers many senior citizen programs, from the Aston Tennis Center to very popular pickleball courts at one of our rec centers. [See the sidebar below for a brief definition of pickleball.] Our focus on multimodal transportation means the city of Asheville is focusing on greenways designed to join neighborhoods with downtown, our River Arts District and other destinations.

4. Asheville recently updated its rules about accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Why and how were the rules changed? What can other communities learn from what Asheville has done?

Asheville continues to see an influx of people moving to the area. As our population increases, the City Council has closely followed the impact on affordable housing, especially in the rental market.

As part of exploring policy options that can improve the affordability of Asheville for all people, the City Council amended the unified development ordinance (UDO) to relax some regulations on accessory dwelling unit (ADUs). We now have a structure in place that we hope will encourage the building of more of these units. We've allowed for them to be bigger than previous rules permitted but still not so big as to overshadow the primary house on the lot. An ADU can provide homeowners with rental income and offer affordable housing to young couples or families just starting out. [For more about ADUs, see the "AARP Accessory Dwelling Units: State Act and Local Ordinance" report.]

Exploring these options began in the City Council's Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, which sought input through six months of intensive interviews with nonprofits and developers. There was a lot of discussion at the neighborhood and the City Council level before the changes were enacted. Our community actively engages in local government and participates regularly in the plans that will shape Asheville's future.

City Hall Of Asheville, North Carolina, City Center, Livable Communities, 5 Questions With Gary Jackson

Photo by Jon Bilous, 123rf

The Buncombe County Court House sits next to Asheville's Art Deco-style City Hall. Located in front of the buildings is Pack Square Park, where the city hosts monthly family movie nights and there's an interactive fountain called Splasheville.

5. What other community programs does Asheville have that other communities should know about and possibly replicate?

The city recently concluded its 123 Graffiti Free initiative, which was an 18-month-long campaign to discourage graffiti. We provided financial assistance to property owners to get this vandalism — and that's what graffiti is — addressed promptly. Our police force has vigorously gone after offenders, and we had 638 requests to assist with graffiti clean up to the tune of $84,500, which was money well spent to enhance our community.

Another initiative we're working on is Zero Waste AVL, in which we're studying ways to reduce solid waste going to the landfill. One option may be what's called a "pay as you throw" system in which residents are charged for solid waste services based on the volume of trash produced. In 2014, the Asheville City Council adopted a resolution to reduce the city's solid waste by 50 percent by the year 2035. We're working to make that happen. Curbside compost, or organics, collection is also under consideration. We already have a vigorous recycling mentality in the city. Our recycling rate is double most municipalities, so that gives us a leg up on our waste-reduction goal.

Melissa Stanton is the editor of

Published January 2016

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