Of Hope and Hotels

And again I return to the practice of hope. We are tangled in threads of intersecting systems and situations that cause unnecessary suffering, pain, and death. Yet many of us keep pulling on those threads, untangling them, focused on freedom.

While it is only a filament of the challenges we are wound up in, the thread of Asheville’s entanglement with hotel-driven tourism is one I have consistently pulled on, hopeful that it can be undone. In recent weeks I’ve heard people from all over our community speak out against more hotels, and I am grateful for the compassionate collective care you are demonstrating. Neighbors expending time and energy to advocate for the greater good of others and the earth inspires hope. Every day, I celebrate the hope imbued in the work of so many folks in Asheville who are building positive things together here. I witness resistance and restoration and the possibility for generative new outcomes in many directions.

The darn hotel development guidelines are up for a vote at the City Council meeting this Tuesday, February 23. Kim Roney lays out the situation at hand here. Below is the text of an email I just sent. You can send your own (asap) to AshevilleNCcouncil@ashevillenc.gov. 

2/21/2021

Dear members of Asheville City Council, 

Like you, I love our community and the land we’re on. Having grown up here, as have most of you, I’ve experienced immense changes. I believe we can all agree that some of the most significant changes have been directly related to the ever increasing scope and influence of the current iteration of the hotel industry since the establishment of the occupancy tax in the early 1980s. 

As an elected body, you are currently tasked with making decisions around hotel development guidelines that will shape the economic, social, and environmental issues that we will face for years to come. May the love you have for this place motivate you to set the standards at the highest levels possible, demanding that any developer make enormous financial contributions to Reparations AND truly Affordable Housing (increased points for both and not choosing between the two) – ie MORE POINTS, and protecting our neighborhoods such as Southside, ie SMALL MAP. 

It is clear that Council is listening to our community’s concerns about the negative impacts of hotels as indicated by the tweaks you’ve made to the guidelines since the public hearing, and I know that you can be even bolder in strengthening them. 

As you make your decisions, may I offer these reflections: 

Why does the hotel industry owe reparations? 

When we look at our history, it is clear that significant contributions to the Reparations Fund must be made by any and all hotels – not as an option, but as a requirement.

We can trace the inception of the hotel industry in Asheville to a group of wealthy landowners who supported the construction of the Buncombe Turnpike in 1827, and then bought land along the road where they opened “stock stands” (aka boarding houses and taverns), and eventually luxury hotels. These men, including David Vance Jr (Zebulon’s father), Thomas Patton, and James Weaver used enslaved labor to build and manage this new industry. (In the Grip of Slavery: The Rise of a Slave Society Surrounding the Establishment of Stock Stands along the Buncombe Turnpike, 1790 to 1855 by Katherine Cutshall). Tourism in Asheville is directly tied to our local legacy of slavery and the violent exploitation of Black people. 

Another reparations-related piece of the history of hotels is the horrific treatment and death of the men, mostly Black, who built the railroad into Asheville, which played a critical role in the continued expansion of tourism here (Somebody Died, Babe: A Musical Cover-Up of Racism, Violence & Greed, by By Kevin Kehrberg & Jeffrey A. Keith).

Similarly, the damage done to the Black community by urban renewal is connected to the tourism industry. Research has shown that, “For Asheville, the desire for a strong tourist industry provided the impetus for urban renewal” (Urban Renewal in Asheville: A History of Racial Segregation and Black Activism by Steven Michael Nickollof).  

Ongoing harm has been caused by many years of a complete lack of equity in tourism promotion by the hotel-run Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority. Not to mention the ways the BCTDA’s target demographics have contributed to gentrification, which has further marginalized and played a role in the exodus of Black residents. 

The debt that is owed cannot be repaid, and still every effort towards repair must be made.

Why should hotels also pay for housing?

As Council paves the way for more of our city’s land and infrastructure to be used by hotels, it is imperative to require robust contributions to an Affordable Housing Fund in addition to paying into Reparations. We need investment in permanently affordable housing that is accessible to workers in the service industry. “Accessible” would be much lower than in the AMI in the current guidelines. Ideally the housing created would include resident-owned properties, allowing families to build generational wealth.  

We have allowed corporate hotel chains – which do not provide significant numbers of living wage jobs with benefits – to have undue power over the trajectory of our city. Any contributions made by hotels to this fund cannot fully offset the multitude of problems caused by their reliance on underpaid labor. That is why the amount of contributions to the fund required should be extremely high and the AMI low. 

The men who established the occupancy tax were ostensibly interested in “economic development” during a period of stagnation. Unfortunately, at the time there was no conversation about whether designating tax dollars to grow the hotel industry would create the kind of jobs that would allow residents to thrive and build wealth, and there certainly was no conversation about equity. Thus the particular type of tourism that we are experiencing as a result of hotel control of the tax has increased profits for tourism business owners and landowners, and increased instability for workers, all while perpetuating racial disparities. 

Council can demand hotels offset the imbalances in housing caused by their dependence on low-wage workers. This can happen while actively working to break our reliance on the service industry by supporting the growth of industries and economic models which offer more reciprocity and community care.

Why further limit the overlay map?

While I am glad to see urban renewal program areas and the Grey Eagle property taken off of the Hotel Overlay Map, more cuts need to be made, such as removing all entrances to the Southside neighborhood, all properties adjacent to urban renewal program areas, and any locations that could be used for housing. Based on what I know, protecting these areas is aligned with Council’s stated priorities. 

As we stand on the precipice of more hotel development, there is no clarity around how many tourists our city’s infrastructure and natural environment can sustainably handle. If every hotel room that we currently have available was full, could our systems, ecosystem, and community health handle it? How exactly does new development and increased visitor traffic affect us environmentally and in terms of our infrastructure? How much does handing pollution, water use, sewage, and waste from visitors cost us? We are gambling with our vulnerability to ecological issues with every new hotel, and a small map can help minimize risk.

Clearly, this is an issue I feel strongly about, and I know you know I am not alone. While myself and countless others in our community want NO MORE HOTELS, since that option is not on the table, I have written this based on the current proposed guidelines. If you can’t make bold changes before Tuesday’s vote, you can vote “no” on the guidelines as they currently stand, and put more time into crafting this impactful policy. 

With love for Asheville, 

Ami Worthen

Update 2/22/2021
The Racial Justice Coalition is calling for Council to postpone their vote on this guidelines until changes like those suggested above are made. Click here for their call to action.

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