Tuscaloosa, Alabama Leaders Connect Over Parks, Industry, Arts on Second Day of Asheville Benchmarking Trip
Dozens of dignitaries from the Tuscaloosa area continued their fourth Benchmarking Trip in Asheville, North Carolina Monday, hearing from local leaders about the success of their convention center, the area's art scene, unconventional industrial development and much more.
The agenda orchestrated by the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama for the Trip's second day was a whirlwind, beginning early Monday morning at the city-owned Harrah's Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville.
The Alabama ambassadors heard about what it took to build the Center, which houses an arena that can seat 7,200 guests and can also be converted to a 100,000 square-foot convention center.
Area leaders Corey Atkins, the Asheville Chamber's VP of Public Policy, and Chris Corl, the general manager of the Harrah's Cherokee Center, broke down the benefits of having a city-owned-and-operated space as opposed to one run privately. While the duo praised the Center's ability to draw hundreds of thousands of people to Asheville and its $42 million annual impact, they also warned that a large convention center is expensive to build, maintain and make profitable.
A second panel in the same space discussed their city's public, private and nonprofit pushes to bolster their downtown district, which was functionally abandoned and boarded up just 50 years ago.
The effort took help from all sides, but most interestingly from a private company called Public Interest Projects, which purchased properties around downtown and funded the development of dozens of restaurants, bakeries, bookstores and the Orange Peel, a live music venue that can seat up to 1,000 patrons.
The Tuscaloosa group also heard from Asheville leaders about the structures, funding models and responsibilities of their parks and recreation systems.
While the Chamber is here in Asheville to learn from their leaders about what works well in the area, and the green spaces in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains are nothing to scoff at, it is worth noting that the Tuscaloosa County Park & Recreation Authority offers West Alabama far more amenities than Asheville does.
"I feel good about how we stack up with Asheville Parks & Recreation," said Gary Minor, PARA's executive director. "Their combined budget is $16 million and PARA's is $14 million. They maintain 800 acres of parkland and PARA maintains 2,100 acres. They have 18 athletic fields and we have 34. They have three aquatic facilities and PARA has nine. They have three gymnasiums and PARA has seven."
During a lunch in the eighth-story Capital Club of Asheville, the Chamber heard from Vic Isley, the President and CEO of Explore Asheville, one of the area's many tourism bureaus.
Citing a local business owner, Isley said Asheville "punches above its weight in food in culture," which contributes to millions of visitors spending $2.2 billion in the area each year. She also praised Asheville's "circular economy," and the way that even the majority of their hotels are locally owned, so dollars spent here tend to stay in the area longer.
One of the starkest differences between the two cities that Isley noted was their thriving vacation rental economy, which brought in more than $173 million in tax revenue last fiscal year, growing even as the COVID-19 pandemic caused tax dollars generated by hotels and motels to plummet.
The group's penultimate stop was at the Asheville Community Theater. There, local leaders talked about the incredible transformation of the city's dilapidated industrial sector on the banks of the French Broad River into a thriving arts scene that houses more than 240 artists in two dozen studios.
As rising property values pushed local artists out of the downtown area and area officials wondered how to address the blight of the mostly abandoned industrial districts, a plan was hatched to kill both birds with one stone – Asheville invested more than $7 million to turn the area into a thriving River Arts District. Now, hundreds of painters, photographers, jewelers, screen printers, basketweavers, sculptors and more have set up shop in studios built out of the riverside buildings no longer needed by area industry.
Monday night wrapped up at New Belgium Brewing Company, which was founded in Fort Collins, Colorado in 1991 and is one of Asheville's 40 craft breweries. In 2012, the company had grown so much, its leadership decided to open a second facility on the east coast to increase both its production capacity and environmental sustainability.
Jay Richardson, the General Manager of the Asheville Brewery, said the company decided to invest millions and create more than 200 jobs here in North Carolina because of the relationships their economic development team had built with the beer giants, not because of some algorithm that told New Belgium what the most optimum location would be.
The Benchmarking Trip wraps up Tuesday morning with discussions about Asheville's innovation and talent retention, as well as a discussion among the Tuscaloosa leaders focused on "R&D" – ripping off and duplicating the best of the best here in the Land of the Sky.
Stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread for additional updates from the Benchmarking Trip after it wraps up Tuesday morning.