Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Asheville's Joe Minicozzi speaks about downtown revival Dec. 1 in Cheyenne

Asheville, N.C., complete with downtown, sunset and mountains (Cheyenne has those, too).
You may only know Asheville, N.C., as the fictional Southern Gothic town of Altamont, Catawba, in Thomas Wolfe's famous novel "Look Homeward, Angel." That's how I met Asheville, as a young college student in the South reading my way through all of Wolfe's books. Interesting to note that the city's "favorite son" was not such a favorite after his thinly-veiled portrayal of some 200 Asheville residents in the 1929 novel. The hubbub caused Wolfe to stay away from his hometown for almost eight years.
These days, Thomas Wolfe's neighborhood and his mom's boarding house and his father's stone-carving workshop all are on the city's walking tour. But that's not the city's only claim to fame. It's been called one of the most livable cities in the U.S. by all of those magazines that track such things. Modern Maturity calls it one of “The 50 Most Alive Places To Be” while Rolling Stone names it the “New Freak Capital of the U.S.” Recently, the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins announced that Asheville is one of its top choices for expansion. This means that Asheville must be another one of those “bikes, (snow) boards and beers” destinations like Fort Collins, Burlington, VT, Flagstaff and Bend, OR. It is one of those “best outside towns” according to Outside Magazine.

One of the city’s many claims to fame is its thriving downtown. Most of its historic buildings did not fall to the wrecking ball during America’s urban renewal craze. They now are inhabited by small businesses, including some 30 art galleries and a slew of cafes and restaurants. This town of 83,000, only a bit larger than Cheyenne, keeps its downtown alive with a variety of performing arts events.

How do they do it? Glad you asked. On Thursday, Dec. 1, Joe Minicozzi will explain it all for you. He’s the executive director of the Asheville Downtown Association. You’re invited to hear him speak from 4-5:30 p.m. Thursday in the Cottonwood Room of the Laramie County Public Library, 2200 Pioneer Ave. His topic will focus on the return that taxpayers receive for investing in downtown. The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), City of Cheyenne and the Sonoran Institute brought Minicozzi to Cheyenne to analyze downtown’s property tax benefits.

My first question might be: what are the property tax benefits of a giant hole in your downtown?

In case you’re wondering, Thomas Wolfe did spend some time in Wyoming. In June and July 1938, Wolfe and Edward Miller, Sunday editor for the Portland Oregonian, trekked by car to 11 national parks. Yellowstone was one of them. The journal of Wolfe’s experiences were discovered with his belongings after he died in September 1938 of complications from tuberculosis and the flu. They were published by the University of Pittsburgh Press as “A Western Journey: a daily log of a great parks trip, June 20-July 2, 1938.” The Virginia Quarterly Review featured an article about Wolfe’s journey in its August 2009 issue. Here’s a sampling:
The text of “A Western Journey” is full of astute descriptions of dramatic western scenery—“the bay-bright gold of wooded big barks,” “a valley plain, flat as a floor and green as heaven and fertile and more ripe than the Promised Land,” “vast, pale, lemon-mystic plain,”—but the people of the American West fascinated Wolfe as much as the scenery. He describes women feeding deer outside the hotel, the Indian children begging for pennies, the diverse spectators at Old Faithful, the motorists who stop along the road to play with the bears, “a quaint old gal named Florence who imitates bird calls,” the man who pulls his son back from a geyser (“Don’t lean over that, I’ll have a parboiled boy”). Wolfe’s deep interest in people was also apparent to Miller, who later commented, “What stood out to me was the enormous kindliness of the man, his intense sympathy for the average, untalented, decent person."
Thomas Wolfe admiring "Old Faithful" in Yellowstone National Park, June 1938. (Thomas Wolfe Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, NC.
Wolfe is long gone. His books remain vital along with landmarks of his life in Asheville. Not sure what lessons Cheyenne can take from Asheville, but I’m going to be there Thursday to hear about the possibilities.

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