Monday, October 26, 2009

Be A Risk-taker: I dare you...

This editorial appeared in the Asheville Citizen Times on Sunday October 25, and was written by RiverLink Executive Director Karen Cragnolin as the 6th article in the Risk Takers Series

Risk-takers who made downtown what it is today should take a bow. They've done an extraordinary job. Reviving downtown Asheville was anything but easy. It took Julian Price and other philanthropists' energy, along with lots of sweat equity, creativity, money, bonds, controversy, bankruptcy and historic preservation. It also took saying “no” to a proposed downtown mall and recognition that at times something isn't better than nothing. It took leadership as well as people willing to follow. It takes entrepreneurs, change and gentrification — all combined — to make the downtown what it is today.

Asheville's downtown is the best, most vibrant and diverse downtown in the state, and possibly the Southeast, with the highest restaurant and retail sales per capita in the state and a taxable value of $3,525,901 per acre in the central business district. Big risks led to equally big rewards. As we move more into a maintenance and preservation to protect this fabulous gem, our risk-takers' job description changes. Now we must be vigilant that we don't lose the essence of what makes the downtown so wonderful while at the same time keeping it vibrant and current.But when you compare revitalization of downtown to riverfront revitalization, downtown is and was “low hanging fruit” — easy by comparison. Revitalizing the river encompasses all the downtown issues, challenges and needs — plus all the issues unique to rivers: flooding, multiple and often contradictory regulations at various governmental levels, erosion, sediment, railroads, interrupted access, junk yards, gentrification, land use and protection of the region's drinking water.

The French Broad has shared philanthropists like Julian Price with the downtown. Julian was a very early risk-taker on the river 20 years ago. He financed RiverLink's purchase of the Warehouse Studios and gave us a mortgage when banks in town thought cash flow from artists' rents couldn't possibly cover a mortgage payment. Progress Energy was another risk-taker, donating land to build the first greenway in Asheville along the river (now French Broad River Park) when RiverLink didn't have a plan or a penny to build it. Progress took another big risk by cleaning up a former manufactured gas site by removing 10,000 tons of contaminated dirt and spending $3 million to help bring the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay greenway to the downtown side of the river.

The Janirve Foundation has been a nonstop risk-taker for our community and the river. What would Asheville be like without the generosity and risk-taking of the Janirve Foundation? The Stanback family have been incredible risk-takers, too. They refused to give up on the chestnut trees and are having great success bringing these wonders back to life. The family has invested in open spaces across our region and state and along the river corridor. These opens spaces are forever — gifts of eternity.For over 20 years the grass-roots risk-takers on the river, backed by philanthropists, businesses, volunteers and dreamers have shared a common vision. We believe the river is a melting pot of people and ideas. We collectively envisioned and documented utilizing the river for walking, biking, hiking, paddling, living, working, eating, shopping, viewing and producing arts and crafts, not to mention fishing, recycling, manufacturing and playing. It is happening today, greenway by greenway, junkyard by junkyard, entrepreneur by entrepreneur.

Twenty years ago over 1,000 of RiverLink's grass-roots river risk-takers bought “Deeds of Support” at $50 per foot to build the first greenway in Asheville. These river risk-takers were regular people. They didn't necessarily own river businesses and had no profit motive; they just loved the river and knew it should be better used and protected. They've grown exponentially in numbers and have persevered as grass-roots leaders helping RiverLink develop the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay and with plans and to buy junkyards, speedways, cotton mills and old repair shops and storage facilities for adaptive reuse.
The combined efforts of these early risk-takers and the sheer beauty and potential of the river, along with low rent, have helped create the “buzz” on the river. The river has attracted loads of national media attention, artists, music venues, high tech manufacturers, restaurants, microbrewers, boat rental companies and shopping areas. It is funky and cool and uniquely Asheville. Risk-takers on the river have understood the importance of remembering what Wilma Dykeman always said, “It is important to know and understand the difference between cost and value.” They support good ideas even if they are someone else's. They're in for the long haul.
Sustainability is the new buzz word. But the Native Americans knew sustainability meant planning not just for today, but for the well being of the next seven generations. Sustainability is what old timers call common sense. You don't eat your seed corn. So as we take risks for the future of our community and river we need to make sure we continue to understand and incorporate into our actions and plans the difference between cost and value. We believe we have taken great risks on the river and there are many more risks to be taken.
And, just like with downtown, the big risks will bring equally big challenges and rewards.

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