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Local Heroes Advocate for a Better Downtown

We were so honored to have our founder and director, Franzi Charen, selected as one of downtown’s heroes by the Asheville Downtown Association and for the local movement to be recognized with this award. Franzi shared this year’s honor with Susan Roderick, the former Asheville Greenworks Director and Jim Daniels, one of the founders of Bele Chere and Quality 76 (now Asheville Greenworks) and downtown business and property owner.

We have been asked to share Franzi’s acceptance speech with you. Recognizing that our town is made up of so  many heroes and heroines, she shared a few of her own with the audience. She also outlined some of our organization’s goals in helping to shape Asheville’s future. Her speech dovetailed well with Adrian Vassallo, the Asheville Downtown Association’s board president calling for an effort to bring locals back to downtown. Full transcript follows (actual speech was shortened due to time constraints).

Thank you, Kim McQueen, for nominating me. I was lucky enough to work with Kim for 3 years on the BID board and was able to witness first hand her determined commitment and fearless leadership. We are lucky to have her in Asheville.

I was born in Spartanburg, SC and grew up in Charlotte. I am first generation American. My parents came to the South because of the textile industry in literal pursuit of the American Dream. My 1st lesson in the importance of community came when NAFTA tore apart the textile industry and affected many towns across the Southeast.

After college I found myself waiting tables and bartending in midtown Atlanta. A friend of mine convinced me to take a mobile marketing job. Think Oscar Meyer Weiner Mobile, but not nearly as glamorous. For 3 years I drove a dually truck with a 28 foot trailer and crossed the country and Canada 7 times. During my travels I got to experience a lot of big cities and small towns. I noticed that many places looked the same, with the same big box stores and restaurants. I found myself mostly drawn to the cities that had character, Portland OR, Seattle WA, San Francisco and even Detroit. I chose to settle in Oakland California.

After the dot com bust real estate prices began to skyrocket. Friends of mine in the Mission District of San Francisco were being kicked out of their homes due to real estate speculation. I lost my job and the fierce competition and dog eat dog nature of the economy made me think about moving.

My brother lived in Asheville at that time with his 5 year old daughter. In early 2002, exactly 13 years ago, I came here. This was an incredibly exciting time to live in Asheville. The energy downtown was infectious. I rented a small space from David Brown and since I came here without a job, I took a business plan writing class from Mountain Micro Enterprise (Mt. Bizworks now) At that time Asheville and relative to the Bay area, Asheville was an inexpensive place to live.

My 2nd lesson in the importance of a strong community was how forgiving and encouraging it could be. While bartending and waiting tables, I was able to try a business idea. After a couple of failures, in 2006, I stumbled upon the opportunity to take over Fired Up! Creative Lounge on Wall St. In 2008, I sold that business to a woman and her family and they are still there today. That year Kip and I took over his boss’s business, Hip Replacements Clothing, when she decided to close the doors and move to Austin, TX. As fate would have it, David Brown became my landlord again.

A little over 5 years ago, a small group of us started the Asheville Grown Business Alliance. We wanted to recognize the value of locally owned and independent business to the vitality of our community and health of our economy. February of 2010 we created the poster with the heart for Valentine’s Day & it has been our most adopted design. At that time, I had no intention of starting an organization. The growth of the campaign was my 3rd lesson in the power of community. It was the people in this room, all of you who care so deeply and who love this city who urged us on.

Since inception we have been part of some great projects:

  • Big Love Festival: co-founded and produced the annual for 3 years with the folks from The Big Crafty, a celebration of unchained, independent Asheville in downtown with over 150 vendors, 2 stages drawing 8,000 attendees. The festival generates over $100,000 in direct economic impact in 1 day. We have since handed the reigns over to The Big Crafty folks who continue to produce it today.
  • Go Local CD: Developed with Jane Hatley and the Self Help Credit Union in March of 2013. Since inception the CD has raised over $1.85 million and let out $2.3 million to local businesses & home loans in WNC
  • Go Local Card: Launched in 2012 the with the Asheville City Schools Foundation. Since inception it has raised over $50,000 for our public schools and 2015 looks to be our best year yet – with almost 400 businesses on board.

The Mountain Xpress has been an integral part of the success of this movement. They have supported each of our efforts. They were the original ones touting “Local Matters” and their talented staff has been beside us every step of the way. For over twenty years they have documented the progress of this city and helped us grow into what we are today. We are so lucky to have independent sources of media and we must support them. New publications like the Carolina Public Press and the Asheville Blade are asking some hard questions and documenting when our worlds collide. They are bringing new and intelligent writers to the table. And of course, our standbys Ashvegas, Asheville FM, the Urban News whichever ones you follow, independent media is crucial to the health and keep politics and debate alive. We don’t want to lose them.

While I am proud of what our organization has been able to do. There are so many others who work towards the health of our community and whose work often goes unrecognized. The volunteers on the Downtown Association’s Issues Committee and the Downtown Commission have been vigilant about the health of our downtown. In addition, some of my personal downtown heroes are:

Yvonne Cook Riley: She is the backbone of so many downtown events including every Downtown After Five and Blue Ridge Pride. She has been instrumental in creating a safe and welcoming downtown for so many walks of life. Her work with the LGBTQ community and her story is one of tremendous courage.

Stephanie Twitty: as the CEO of Eagle Market St. Development Corporation for the past 8 years, she has spearheaded the transformation of the historic African American neighborhood on the south-east side of downtown. Through the rapidly growing commercial sewing initiative Block By Block industries she is also bringing  manufacturing back to downtown.

Kitty Love: The current Executive Director for the Asheville Area Arts Council and founder of the LAAFF festival downtown an event many of us feel comprises the heart and soul of Asheville. Kitty is one of the reasons downtown is filled with art. She opitimizes creative placemaking. She has used arts programming in downtown to help create a sense of place, discovery and ownership for everyone.

These are just 3 of my heroes, people I have so much admiration for and who took risks and put people over profit.

We don’t exist in a bubble and we would be err to think that “Going Local” will solve all of our problems. In fact, this is just addressing a symptom of many greater issues. It is dangerous to think the answer is the commodification of local.

Don’t be mistaken, our consistent topping of the polls reflects our loveability not our liveability. We are not yet done.

I want to say something about the role I hope Asheville Grown can play in the future of our city and of our downtown.

Quarterly networking events: starting this year, we hope to bring back our Local Socials. Events where business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs – or really anyone interested in the local economy can converge and discuss ideas to shape our future. During the 3rd quarter we hope to re-launch Advantage West’s Venture Local conference.

Worker Cooperatives: look to other cities and regions who have created training and incentives to form worker cooperatives and for our retiring baby boomers to create ESOPs and sell their companies back to their employees instead of closing the doors or selling to an outside company.

Public Banking: Initiate studies for a county or city bank or other creative ways in which we can keep our municipal dollars out of Wall St. and invest it back into our community.

Engage our anchor institutions and foundations in the movement: our anchor institutions are our largest and most stable employers they can be instrumental in plugging the leaks in our economy, incubate small businesses, revitalize neighborhoods and utilize innovative employee ownership models.

Property Ownership: In Utah they have created incentives for property owners in downtowns to sell to local businesses instead of outside corporations.

There is a compelling case that downtowns that are home to numerous locally owned businesses are more prosperous and resilient than those controlled by a few big corporations. We must work to protect our culture from the pressures of explosive growth that face our downtown.

Like Reverend William Barber said this summer, “We are not here for a moment, we are trying to build a movement.”