Asheville-Buncombe reparations commission approves plan for a Black-led economic center

A new “one-stop shop” for helping Black residents build wealth is one of several recommendations adopted by a local commission that was set up for informing reparations policies in Asheville and Buncombe County.

While the Community Reparations Commission lacks the final say on spending and government policies, it has spent the last two years studying potential reparations actions.

At Monday’s night virtual meeting, the commission voted yes on a plan for an economic development center, along with three other recommendations.

The 25-member commission was formed by city and county government leaders to find solutions for damage caused by public and private systemic racism.

The economic development plan, pitched as a ‘one-stop shop’ for Black community resources, was first revealed at a December 2023 meeting.

As proposed, the center would offer a myriad of services aimed at boosting economic prosperity for Black residents, including commercial space for entrepreneurs, job training and financial education. The plan advocates for the creation of a financial institution designed for and led by Black residents of Asheville and Buncombe County.

The recommendation expands beyond one central location, recommending that Black business corridors be established along Charlotte Street, Asheland Avenue, Valley Street and the Southside neighborhood to help rebuild “cohesive communities for Black Asheville.”

This system will “create a cohesive system for Black-led economic development,” the plan said.

A budget or estimated cost was not included in the plan, but it did suggest that the city and county use land that it obtained during urban renewal, as well as additional city and county-owned land, to develop the economic development center and adjacent corridors.

Commission members approved the resolution unanimously.

The commission also approved a plan for a guaranteed income pilot program for low-income residents and a funding program that would support public housing and historic Black neighborhoods with $250,000 grants.

After the first vote, Vernisha Crawford, who has led the commission through the process since November 2023, took a moment to celebrate.

“You guys have just passed your first official recommendation,” she said. “Congratulations, this is great.”

Questions about accountability, timeline linger

Not everyone expressed Crawford’s optimism.

Commission member and former city councilman Keith Young, one of the original architects of the reparations resolution passed in 2020, drew attention to an ongoing existential issue for the commission: its June deadline.

“There’s no hard deadline for city and county officials to get back to us, but there is a hard deadline for us to stop when we asked for more time to get this done,” Young said.

Last December, the commission asked for an eight-month extension, but the city and county only agreed to extend it through June. Several commission members, including Young, Vice Chair Dewana Little, Chair Dwight Mullen and commission member Bobette Mays, have expressed in prior meetings that the timeline is unreasonable.

Despite many pleas for an extension, neither the city nor county acquiesced.

At Monday’s meeting, Sala Menaya-Merritt, the city’s Equity & Inclusion Director, said the commission’s final meeting is scheduled for June 17.

“I’m not saying that that’s the hard deadline to get [the recommendations] in but I am saying that that’s a deadline that we’re working from at this moment. That could change,” she said. “I’m not sure if that’s going to change or not.”

Young also expressed concern about the fourth and final recommendation of the evening, which laid out plans for a “Reparations Accountability Council.” Young took issue with how Black residents could actually hold the government accountable for implementing the commission’s recommendations.

As proposed, the council would serve as an independent review board of the reparation commission’s finalized recommendations. It would include five commission members (one representative per impact focus area), one executive director and one attorney.

The council would not have a public budget or power to enforce the recommendations among city and county agencies.

“This essentially is just a community advisory group that will hold the recommendations in place,” Ameris Lavender, a facilitator for the commission, explained. “And the power comes from the people. That’s what we must remember.”

The main goals of the group would be to “articulate the intent of structural and systemic recommendations, ensure fidelity in the implementation of the CRC recommendations, monitor the progress and effect of CRC recommendations, and ensure city/county compliance with the Reparations resolution that each adopted,” according to the proposal.

The measure was approved unanimously by the commission, but commission member Chris Gordon echoed Young and William’s concerns.

If the city and county don’t do what they say they will, the only thing people can do is “come out and demand that they do,” Gordon said. “I mean, we don’t have any other way of holding them to their word.”

The commission is currently in phase two of a f

Screenshot from Community Reparations Commission meeting

The commission is currently in phase two of a four-phased process.

What’s next?

The Community Reparations Commission plans to vote on more recommendations.

It plans to vote on more agenda items at its next meeting on May 13 at 6 p.m., at Harrah’s Cherokee Center.

Once voting wraps up, the recommendations will move to “phase three,” where the ball will be in the court of Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. Elected officials will consider all of the recommendations from the commission and vote on the ones they’d like to implement. No meeting dates for votes have been announced.

City and county leaders have said community members will be involved in strategic plan development for approved recommendations.

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