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Steve Caraker, three-term council member who fought to save Grey Mill, dies

Steve Caraker, who won a seat on the Hendersonville City Council after a citizen uprising against a high-rise condo downtown and went on to serve three productive terms, died suddenly Tuesday at Pardee UNC Health care, the city said in a news release.

"It is with deep sadness that the city of Hendersonville announces the passing of long-time City Council member Steve Caraker," the city said. Caraker died suddenly after being taken to Pardee's emergency room early Tuesday and had fought an extended battle against cancer before that.

“Today, the city of Hendersonville lost a true public servant with the death of Steve Caraker," Mayor Barbara Volk said. "Steve honorably served our city for nineteen years. His knowledge and experience in construction and development were outstanding resources to the rest of us on the council. He always represented the city and City Council with passion and devotion, and he will be greatly missed by our community.”

The owner of a home in the Westside Historic District that he painstakingly restored, Caraker became involved in the Save Our City movement that organized to oppose the Sunflower (later Carolina Grande) high-rise condomninium project downtown. The uprising resulted in a citywide referendum that capped building heights at no higher than the Historic Courthouse dome and launched Caraker's 12-year tenure on the City Council.

Caraker had served two terms on the City’s Historic Preservation Commission before winning the council seat. In 2014 the historic commission honored Caraker and his wife, Donna, for the preservation of their home at 524 Third Avenue West, which was built around 1920.

Through setback after setback, Caraker led the way on the council for the preservation and restoration of the Grey Hosiery Mill.

“Steve was determined to preserve the Grey Hosiery Mill," fellow council member Jeff Miller said. "Each time, the City hit a roadblock in the restoration of the Mill, Steve would demand that we never give up on preserving this historical building and site. If it were not for Steve Caraker’s tenacity for restoring historic buildings, the Grey Mill would have been a parking lot.” 

The family will announce funeral arrangements at a later date, the city said.

After winning his seat in 2007, Caraker won re-election twice. He ran for a fourth term in 2019, finishing fourth in an election won by challengers Jennifer Hensley and Lyndsey Simpson. After the vote, Caraker expressed regret that the campaign had become in his view partisan, with Simpson rising support from the Progressive Women of Henderson County to win a seat. (Hensley, a Republican who won the balloting, was also well-organized.)

“Our council since my tenure here has always been a mix of larger political ideologies, and the back and forth between them has always produced a good work product,” Caraker wrote in a Facebook comment after the election. “I’ve never seen another board work as well for the last two terms,” he told the Lightning in an interview. “I’m a registered Republican and consider myself a conservative but you don’t have to be hard-line conservative on everything.”

When the council honored Caraker and Ron Stephens at their last meeting in December 2019, neighborhood activist Ken Fitch praised Caraker for his service. Caraker had often brought to bear his expertise in construction, historic preservation and water and sewer issues, Fitch said, but he had shown his humanity when a Boy Scout working on an Eagle project described the birdhouses he planned to erect at Patton Park. Caraker volunteered to supply the wood and his home workshop.

"He had the supplies and tools and would provide the supervision," Fitch recalled. "It was a stunning moment that the young man and many of us will never forget."

“I am so proud of what we been able to do for this community,” Caraker said at the meeting. “I love this place, I love all of you people and I’m so proud of what we have been able to do as a group the last 12 years." Serving on the council has been “one of the best and most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life."

Besides the Grey Mill conversion into loft apartments, other projects that are complete, under way or close to breaking ground were all conceived and pushed forward when Caraker served, including the new police station, downtown parking deck, Seventh Avenue streetscape, a potential Fire Station 3 and others.