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Candidates weigh in on growth, housing, city-county cooperation

In one form or another, candidates for the Hendersonville City Council and mayor emphasize that they want to preserve the city’s small-town feel while managing inevitable growth.

“My wife and I moved here 20 years ago,” said Mike Baer, a business consultant and innkeeper of the Elizabeth Leigh Inn on Fifth Avenue West. “We came from Atlanta, and if there ever was a city that outgrew its everything, it’s Atlanta. It outgrew its roads, its education system, police force, every category you can think of. So I’ve lived that. I don’t want to see it happen here.”
A native of Wilson, three-term incumbent Jerry Smith said he and his wife, Dr. Anne Smith, chose Hendersonville when she was starting her medical practice and he was making a career switch from the law to the high school classroom.
“We wanted to raise our kids here,” he said. “We wanted to live in the mountains.”
A native of Hendersonville and graduate of Appalachian State University, Chelsea Walsh moved to Charleston, South Carolina, after she got laid off from her first job.
“I slept in my car the first night I was there,” she said. “I had $35 in my bank account and I made it work. I ran an insurance agency in Charleston for about seven years and realized that my family is here and I want to be here and settle down.”
D.J. Harrington and his wife got married in Lake Lure and moved to Hendersonville, where they’re raising four children.
“I’m not from North Carolina but I knew as a kid I wanted to move out and move and I want my kids to stay here,” said Harrington, who is running for mayor.
Barbara Volk and her late husband, Dr. Jim Volk, chose Hendersonville when they were a young couple.
“When Jim and I moved to Hendersonville in 1975 I never considered that some day I might be mayor of this town, because we wanted to raise a family here in a small town with warm friendly people, good schools, high quality of life, and we found that,” said Volk, who is seeking a fourth term as mayor.
The candidates made the comments in a virtual forum last week sponsored by the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce. (Council candidate Debbie Roundtree did not attend the forum.) They tackled questions on cooperation between the city and county, communication with residents and business owners, affordable housing and downtown and Seventh Avenue.
The six City Council candidates meet in a primary on Oct. 5 to narrow the field to four for the two open seats. Harrington and Volk face off in the general election on Nov. 2. Here are the candidates’ answers during the campaign event.

Opening statements

Mike Baer: “I believe business, if it’s well led, can bring tremendous blessing and tremendous benefit to the community. It brings jobs, it brings income, it brings all manner of other ancillary that come from that — better housing, better tax base. If it’s done right, it really does make a difference for everybody.”

Raphael Morales: “I’m running for City Council, not as a business person, as a working class citizen and a resident of the city of Hendersonville. There are a lot of things we don’t have that includes economic stability, housing affordability and when it comes to the job market, especially right now, we’re seeing a lot of volatility here in Hendersonville that’s affecting a lot of people very differently. My campaign and ultimately my tenure when elected to City Council is going to be equitably focused on folks most impacted by our local economy, which we know is a microcosm of a much larger picture, the United States economy as a whole.

Jerry Smith: His wife, Anne, “did her residency at Georgetown so I went to Washington, D.C. When we went to Washington, D.C., I decided to take a break from practicing law and look into becoming a teacher and I went to graduate school at George Mason and got my degree in secondary education. I really enjoyed it.” They moved to Hendersonville in 2003. They have three children, two daughters in college and a son in high school.

Mike Vesely: Retired from city police department after 26 years, Vesely is married with two children. “I’m approaching the campaign as a middle-class working guy. I have seen failures in our city government, failures in our economy and where money could be spent a little bit better. We need adequate work force. What is adequate workforce? Not our retirees but people that are actually workforce people and how do they survive in our economy (and obtain) workforce housing? It’s so hard for these kids to have a house or come up with five or six thousand dollars for first-last (rent). We need to utilize our funding better to have this workforce housing. How do we keep business here with our infrastructure? We live in downtown Hendersonville and our internet is terrible. If we have a good line of infrastructure people want to come here, people want to grow here, people want to keep their business here.”

Chelsea Walsh: In her free time, “usually you can find me singing karaoke or outside running, hiking, hanging out with my dog. I’m running my platform without a victim mentality. I believe that as things change and as things evolve you have to be on the forefront and you have to be willing to change and make adjustments going forward. … I’m running my campaign on preservation, security and advancement, safety, infrastructure and sustainability. We have to have council members who are involved and can be a voice for many different demographics. We need more advocacy instead of activism.”

D.J. Harrington: “Walking on Main Street, I’ve been talking to a lot of business owners. I think there’s a disconnect sometimes and I want to make sure that we’re representing our city to the business owners. I’m for growth, I’m in construction but I’m also in for small-town feel. I want my kids to feel safe. I want to feel safe walking the streets of Hendersonville and enjoying what we have, keeping it friendly, keeping it vibrant.”

Barbara Volk: “Through my experience on the city council I realize there’s a lot of effort that goes into this. It doesn’t just happen. Members of the council have to be very knowledgeable about what’s going on in the area, what’s happening in a variety of issues, have to look at the concerns of the citizens, have to look at the big picture of the decisions that are made, can’t look at just one issue in isolation. Once the decision is made, the staff then implements it and we are very fortunate to have outstanding staff, from the top on down, to carry out these decisions of the council. I’ve tried to spend a lot of my time talking to people, letting them know what’s going on, answering questions, their concerns. It’s very important for mayor and council to know what (constituents) would like the city to do.”

City-county cooperation

Our community has seen examples of how city and county can work together to benefit the entire community and we’ve seen examples where cooperation was lacking. Where do you see opportunities for better cooperation that will benefit the entire community?

Morales: “Hopefully we’re speaking to the need to accurately represent the area that they are vying to represent. I tell people that I favor equity above all things and I don’t believe you can create a lens of equity without lived experience. Not necessarily a victim mentality but perseverance mentality. … We need to focus on those voices and those communities and uplift and give them the representation.”

Smith: “Two examples of how we’ve worked together most recently, one was just this past week (Aug. 16) with the ribbon cutting for the soon to be Ecusta greenway. We’ve worked diligently with the county to get that project started. Also in the past year we’ve worked with the county to get Jabil (manufacturing plant) to come to the county and in particular the city of Hendersonville. One opportunity that I think we will definitely have to work on in the next couple of years is going to be workforce housing. I think the city will need to work with the county to identify places where we would like to have this level of housing so that our workforce has a place to live and can afford to live there. Another opportunity is the development of downtown Hendersonville and all of the city, sort of like the science center across from the YMCA. We worked with the county in developing that site. … We’ve shown we know how to work with them, the city is ready to work with them and there certainly are some shining examples of what we can continue to do.”

Vesely: “Like Jerry said, the Ecusta Trail, working with the county with the Wingate development (to create the Health Sciences building). We work pretty well I think with the county at the level of employees. I think where it has failed is the water and sewer conflicts with the county. That needs to get resolved. How are we going to bring commerce to Hendersonville if they don’t have proper water and sewer? I feel if these companies want to be part of the city then I believe they need to be annexed into the city.”

Walsh: “For cooperation at a local level, we have to be able to communicate with the local city boards and with the commissioners. You’ve got boards and advisory committees at the city level and the county level and you’ve got to make sure people are on the same page. In different meetings you’ll have people talking about the same things and going in different directions and that doesn’t help us advance at all. It ends up causing conflict. We’ve got to be able to cooperate in the Seventh Avenue revitalization project and with what’s happening in the downtown area also. We have to realize that we are going to expand. The other thing is, we have to work on governmental cooperation as well, whether it’s us being accountable to business owners and our residents. We have to work with other local officials, whether it is the police chief, the fire chief, the city manager. And on top of that, from a macro level, you’ve got to be able to work with your state legislators because they are the ones that are giving us this bubble we’re able to operate in.”

Baer: “The Ecusta Trail is one of the great examples of what can happen when not just county and city but other entities including private organizations, Conserving Carolina, the Friends of Ecusta Trail cooperate. It does work and I think that’s the starting point. Let’s not focus on what’s broken, let’s focus on what does work and make more of that. … To me (the unity) was one of the most encouraging things I’ve seen in over 20 years of living in Hendersonville. So I think that’s the pattern. Let’s find those projects, find those challenges. This might sound a little bumper stickery but we’ve got to do this together. Look at water and sewer, look at education, look at what I call all-level housing. There’s so many opportunities and challenges. We can pull together around those and have more successes like Ecusta Trail.”

Volk: “Yes to all the things that have been mentioned and things that have happened. A couple of things that are occurring right now. There’s a committee not just the city and county but other cities as well discussing what we’re doing with our ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds, millions of dollars coming into our community. So we’re looking at how we can coordinate our efforts on that. Another thing coming up that I feel we should be working on. County has started working on its comprehensive plan. City is going to be updating our comprehensive plan as well and it’s a good time we can work together and coordinate, make sure that these two long-range plans mesh.”

Harrington: “It’s been said a lot but I think communication is key. Communicating even with the residents of the city and county and the business owners. I love the Ecusta Trail, I think it’s awesome. I want to go to the people and get them involved, if it’s Seventh Avenue, the business owners on Main Street, and even the business owners off of Main Street. Getting everybody involved is key.”

Managing growth

The Census showed that Hendersonville and all of Henderson County continues to experience strong population growth. What would you do to manage growth and ensure a strong quality of life in Hendersonville?

Smith: When a developer proposed a large housing complex on Haywood Road, more than 100 residents turned out at a public meeting to oppose it. “I think it was a very strong no as far as the size and complexity of the project. This is an example of what we have to do to manage growth. People are going to move to Henderson County, people are going to move to Hendersonville. What I will continue to do and what I’ve done in my 12 years on council is to balance the needs to protect the way of life people have now with the reality that people are going to move here. We have to make clear to our residents and our businesses where we want to have neighborhoods and where we want to have commercial uses.”

Vesely: “So how do we get businesses here? I don’t think we can keep growing ‘up’ like our neighbors to our north — apartment complexes everywhere. We need to provide the houses to get our workforce people here. How do we get them here? Good training, good benefits, good housing, water, sewer, highway infrastructure. All workforce people want their own homestead. They want to live and have their own piece of property instead of an apartment. … Mostly out in the county on our outskirts we have septic systems that are failing, so we need to provide that infrastructure to build our commerce.”

Walsh: “One of the things I’m running on is safety, structure and sustainability, and all too often when you hear the word sustainability they think wind turbines and solar panels. Sustainability actually encompasses economic sustainability as well and I think we know, based on the census information and what’s going on in our backyard, that people are coming here whether we’re ready or not. I think (working with the county) we can control how fast we grow. With that being said, we have to take into consideration what’s going to raise our standard of living in the community — the type of businesses, the type of people who we’re attracting. … If we have more people in this community and we can’t service them the way they deserve, it will decrease our quality of life. … We need growth, we cannot go backwards.”

Baer: “Growth is going to happen, this is not an option for us, and as in most cases in life we have to make sure that we are both embracing it and guiding it and not just letting it happen to us. At the least, we need be looking at balance. I’m a huge supporter of comprehensive planning, so that we have a roadmap and an agreed set of priorities and principles that we use … so we’re not living in a knee-jerk reaction. To me it comes back to, how are we going to keep Hendersonville the city that everyone loves. This is coming. It can be great or it can be devastating.”

Morales: “I think it’s interesting Mike Vesely brought up our neighbor to the north. I think they’re a tremendous example of what failure looks like in my eyes whenever you talk about growth and planning and the people that are most impacted.” It’s critical to look at “how many voices are in the room where decisions are made. Those interests are not being met, those conversations are not being had, those people are not represented. We can say that we will listen to them but at the end of the day it’s just a gesture unless they’re actually in the room. We have lot of conversation about Seventh Avenue but I’d ask anyone if they would be able to define revitalization and understand the implications of gentrifying an area and displacing communities that are there.”

Harrington: “As stated by everyone, growth is happening. I’m in the construction business and I see it personally. Business-wise, I want growth but as a family, as a future, we do need to be careful. We see a lot of (applications) trying to rezone property, trying to use the maximum amount of the footprint. I would really be cautious of that. If we took a real snap picture of — are we set for it, is our foundation able to handle the growth that is coming, some of the decisions are going to be tough decisions. Look at our infrastructure, our roads, our internet. We have great health care, we have great businesses. We need to keep that and sometimes we need to look inward so we can look outward.”

Volk: “We live in a desirable area and growth is going to come. If we tried to stop it, all we’d do is raise the prices of houses that are already here. We need to try to accommodate this growth and if we can keep it as close into the city as possible it will help with providing those services, primarily water and sewer, that are needed. we can also provide things like greenways and the Ecusta Trail and sidewalks so people can walk places instead of having to get into their car. Keeping downtown the way it is and expanding over into Seventh Avenue — giving people that hometown feel. That’s what people like about Hendersonville so a lot of the focus for the city has been to keep this the center of all of our concerns. And being able to provide excellent services, pay our employees well so we retain the best of those employees.”

Affordable housing

Many candidates talk about the importance of attracting businesses that will pay well. That makes sense but how do you solve the problem of housing for low-income people. There will always be jobs like police, teachers and service industry that do not pay enough to buy a home in Hendersonville. What solutions do you have for the city to provide housing?

Baer: The cost of housing in Hendersonville is really a function of supply and demand. We need more housing and the more housing we have at all levels, the more we’ll be able to find affordable levels for various folks. We have city employees who can’t live in the city so I think, No. 1, we’ve got to do everything in our power to increase the supply of nice housing. I don’t think the answer is for the city to build housing. That’s been tried for decades and it’s failed miserably in virtually every place it’s been tried. But I like the partnership with Habitat for Humanity, for example. There are other agencies like that will help us expand our supply of housing. We ought to be partnering with every agency that wants to build housing and help make it happen.”

Morales: “The question goes to the heart of the issue and it’s honestly a pretty scary one for a lot of people whose livelihood depends on the businesses and on the stability of our economy. When something like Covid happens, or whenever we have a less than robust tourism season, these people’s hours are cut. With increasing rent, displacement is inevitable. The question specifically, how will we fix the lack of housing for those people — I’m running for a City Council seat so that requires cooperation with a lot of different entities and it requires a pretty robust investigation into zoning as well, how outdated our zoning is and how we can evolve it.”

Smith: “First, as a member of City Council for the next four years, I will actively work to acquire land that we will then try to attract a developer in, specifically with the idea of developing either affordable housing or workforce housing and preferably both. Second, I think we have to form a task force between the municipalities and the county, sort of like the Partnership for Economic Development. We work with that group to identify parts of the county but not necessarily land in the city where we would like to develop workforce and affordable housing for people that want to live and work in Hendersonville … and acquire that land as a group and attract developers who will come in and build that housing that we need.”

Vesely: “We need to continue with the Housing Assistance Corp., not owning these properties. We need to partner with Habitat or another contractor to build 1,300, 1,500-square-foot homes for people on the workforce housing. We have to work to find issues with the homeless to get them in homes. We have to do better acquiring land” for housing.

Walsh: “When we hear affordable housing, some of us think Section 8, some of us think low-income. Some people don’t want to own their home, some people don’t the yardwork, some people don’t want the maintenance, some people want valet trash, and so I challenge you guys to consider what it is most people want. But at the same time we have to decide, are we going to make things more ‘affordable’ and go towards the lower income demographic or how do we challenge to make it more affordable for the majority because what is affordable to me might not be as affordable for some of the other people on this call. So when you use that word you’re walking a very tight line. You’re assuming everybody is at a certain level and they’re not.” She would “encourage people to level up, find a way to make more money, find a way to get a better job, find a way to advance in the community, own your own business, be a top sales manager.”

Volk: She said she recently ran across remarks former Mayor Fred Niehoff made in 1997 about challenges in the city. “What was the No. 1 challenge? Affordable housing. Twenty-five years ago. This is a not a situation that we are going to solve. All we can do is help. Working with developers, giving our approval to tax credit projects, having to balance that with the neighborhoods that don’t want lots and lots of housing on that empty lot on N.C. 191. It’s a major effort that the city cannot solve, trying to work with partners. We can do what we’re doing, trying to bring our employees’ salaries up so that they can afford a decent house in or close to the city.”

Harrington: “Being in the construction industry I know the cost of housing keeps on going up. That’s a big challenge.” He has talked to a mentor about a nonprofit to help people build a home. “There’s grants out there to help people. Communication is key in making programs known to others to help them. If they don’t want ownership maybe the condo is better for them. … Putting money into your own box or someone else’s box is the key. A vibrant city we talked about — having good jobs here, making people want to be here and raising those wages up.”