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New Belgium’s advent alters more landscapes than just Craven Street

“We’re picking [Asheville] this year because the sketchy riverside area has been totally redone thanks to the New Belgium Brewery, which has poured millions of dollars into this area, making new parks, artists’ collectives, farmers markets, bike paths … It’s just a great place to go. It has the most breweries per capita, so always a party.” — Pauline Frommer on “Good Morning America, January 1, 2015

Pauline Frommer’s gushy cluelessness on national television might have disappeared into the ether leaving only headshakes and wry chuckles in its wake if it had not squarely struck a nerve among Asheville residents that was first laid bare three years ago, when New Belgium Brewing, America’s third-largest craft brewery, first announced it had chosen Asheville as the site of its east coast brewing and distributing operations.

Ordinarily the news that a major player in the beer business would be constructing $177 million worth of facilities in a city already awarded the title of “Beer City, USA” might have been expected to generate community pride and congratulations all round for scoring a jobs-and-taxes windfall, but as details of the deal emerged, so did questions about how Asheville goes about attracting business, how much attention it pays to stakeholders in its decisions and to what extent the New Belgium’s corporate and physical presence would change the social and political landscape of its adopted town.

Asheville put together an $8.5 million incentive package for New Belgium, then threw in city-funded improvements for a ¾-mile stretch of Craven Street, which borders the brewery site, to include greenways and bike paths. (New Belgium will be brewing its Fat Tire ale at the site and awards each employee a bicycle after a year’s employment; and the result was hailed as a long-needed benefit for Asheville’s own enthusiastic biking community.) The amount originally budgeted for the Craven Street improvements was slightly more than $850,000, but the final contract amount was $6.9 million, which nearly doubled the amount being spent on the New Belgium project.

During the 2013 city council election campaign, then-candidate Esther Manheimer stressed that New Belgium would be paying about $250,000 a year in property taxes. However, research revealed that the covenant with New Belgium indicated the corporation will be receiving about $364,000 in tax breaks over a period of 13 years, creating a net loss of about $1.48 million over that length of time. Many locals felt that for a city government that had only recently revealed it was in a cold sweat about deficits, this seemed an incongruous way to try to cure the problem. Observers began to separate into two camps: it-takes-money-to-make-money and charity-begins-at-home.

Then there were the sites themselves. The distribution center is being constructed in Enka and the brewery on the site of the old city stockyards, in a bend of Craven Street at the convergence of three old, established neighborhoods and on a flood plain. Moreover, the route chosen to and from the two facilities was Haywood Road, an already congested two-lane that studies show will now have to carry as many as 104 daily 18-wheeler commutes.

Hence those most directly affected by the New Belgium project, both immediately and in future, will be those who regularly use the Haywood Road travel corridor and the residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the brewery. Here again division reared its head, this time between not-in-my-back-yard and you-are-trying-to-obstruct-progress.

Public relations and Facebook wars

One of New Belgium’s first moves was to hire Asheville public relations freelancer Susanne Hackett as its local public liaison and corporate voice. Hackett, in turn, set about establishing a cluster of “neighborhood leadership roundtables,” comprised of residents living near the New Belgium sites, to provide forums for “community input” as the project went forward. Since the roundtables were a New Belgium construct, neighbors who had misgivings about certain aspects of the project complained that their concerns were being elbowed aside in favor of the official party line. In May of 2014, the blog Ashvegas reported:

“A small but vocal contingent of residents in the immediate neighborhood of New Belgium’s West Asheville site have made company officials stand up and take notice. The first issue has focused on the routing of trucks, which will transport beer to and from the site. More immediate concerns about the safety of the site, as well as construction noise and disruption, are constantly being addressed … “

Not addressed sufficiently to satisfy the “small, vocal contingent,” which consisted mostly of homeowners with small children. According to them, attempts to register genuine concerns about the impact of the project on their quality of life were met with evasiveness by New Belgium and by insults and ridicule from their pro-New Belgium neighbors.

Leadership of the faction aligned with New Belgium was assumed by Rich Lee, a stockbroker and officer of the East West Asheville Neighborhood Association. Spokespersonship of those who described themselves as “not anti-New Belgium but just trying to be heard” devolved upon Jonathan Wainscott, a self-employed carpenter who ran for city council in 2013, and his wife, Keane, an artist. The Wainscotts have three children.

The tension between the two sides spilled over onto Facebook, where each camp promptly founded its own page. Wainscott and company posted objections, often painstakingly supported by statistics and quotes, to what it felt was New Belgium’s running roughshod over legitimate concerns. Lee’s New Belgium acolytes countered with often snarky personal putdowns. (Lee alluded to Wainscott’s being “unemployed;” Emma resident and New Belgium roundtable member Stuart Greene sneeringly offered to buy the Wainscotts’ home, saying, “I would like to help out by purchasing the two pieces of property that you own near the brewery site, since you are so displeased and would clearly like to relocate. Although a combined .23 of an acre isn’t much, I could certainly use a small rental in the West Asheville area, once the New Belgium project is finished and the area skyrockets in popularity. Perhaps it would make a good starter home for a brewery worker, with easy commute to work. The Buncombe County GIS lists the house at less than 800 square feet, so I can certainly understand your attachment to such an opulent domicile but I’m prepared to offer you 75% of current tax value.”)

New Belgium goes political

Last fall New Belgium’s Ft. Collins, Colorado, headquarters quietly filed the necessary paperwork to create a federal political action committee, making it the first craft brewery to undertake such a step, once the sole purview of industry giants like Coors and Anheuser-Busch. The move was widely seen as serving notice that New Belgium intends to be a player in local politics. PAC’s may contribute up to $5,000 towards the campaign of any one candidate of their choosing. (Rich Lee recently announced his interest in running for city council in this year’s elections. Whether he would be looking to New Belgium for support is not known.).

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