HOMETOWN HERO

An architect of the rebirth of downtown Asheville remains connected to the city’s center

By JOHN BOYLE

While she’s officially been named a “Downtown Hero,” Leslie Anderson ’72 MPA ’85 is never one to take solo credit for Asheville’s remarkable revitalization. She drops names of other movers and shakers who played key roles in that remarkable rebirth, downplaying her own role. But the woman honored by the Downtown Asheville Association in 2007 with the “hero” title does allow herself to savor just how vibrant Asheville has become.

“I had this incredible opportunity to know this community from when it was really down and out and on its last legs to this today,” said Anderson, who now runs her own consulting company, Leslie Anderson Consulting Inc. “I had an inside view, and there were a lot of us who worked night and day for those 10 years and more to transform it. And now to see it some 20-plus years later, what has happened, that does feel good.”

Hometown

Leslie Anderson ’72 MPA ’85 (center, photo at left) has pointed the way for downtown Asheville’s revitalization for decades.

She remains involved – and vocal – with downtown issues that had a genesis in 1972, when Anderson came to town, fresh out of Western Carolina University. She worked for the Girl Scouts for two years, then took a job with Asheville’s Parks & Recreation Department.

“I immediately was part of these conversations and the wringing of hands and the gnashing of teeth about downtown,” Anderson recalled, citing the exodus of department stores from downtown after Asheville Mall opened in the early 1970s.

While the city center languished for years, Anderson and others set to work to change that. From 1986-95, Anderson headed the Downtown Development Office, which spearheaded a public/private partnership involving all levels of governments, businesses, property owners and the community. The office helped guide more than $63 million in private investment into the area and led to the creation of the Asheville Downtown Association. Along the way, they saved the Bele Chere street festival from bankruptcy in 1985, made it solvent and profitable, then managed 11 of the popular downtown festivals.

Karen Tessier, another downtown revitalization pioneer, headed up a private sector nonprofit called Asheville Buncombe Discovery, founded by downtown benefactor Roger McGuire, from 1985-93. In that role she worked on a parallel track to Anderson, with Tessier mining the private sector and Anderson working the public end.

Anderson, Tessier maintains, brought an intensity, a “focused organization” to downtown vision that enabled those public-private partnerships to flourish at a time when neither one by themselves had the ability to fully capitalize on the budding energy downtown.

“She’s a marvel at harnessing energy, and at creating a foundation for success and understanding through her heart and her experiences and education what is necessary to achieve positive outcomes,” Tessier said.

Anderson continues to harness energy for downtown causes, as well as community and youth work, such as serving on the vestry of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Asheville, volunteering with the Family-to-Family faith consortium in the Reynolds School District of Buncombe County for family assistance, and providing guidance for the Blue Ridge Partnership for Children in Avery, Yancey and Mitchell counties.    

Reprinted in edited format with permission of the Asheville Citizen-Times.