As Jonas Gerard remembers, he fell under Asheville’s spell within 20 minutes of rolling into the North Carolina mountain town from Miami seven years ago. Enamored of Asheville and “the arts scene, the people, the friendliness, the hippies … the whole thing” he decided to resettle in a city that’s way smaller but perhaps no less colorful and lively than the south Florida metropolis that had been his home for 38 years.
Many Asheville transplants’ stories are similar to Gerard’s. They came, they saw, they fell for the city and they moved to it. The mountain town’s magnetic personality pulled them in.
“People don’t come here with jobs; they don’t come here for jobs,” said Cat Kessler, public relations and marketing coordinator for the Asheville CVB. And when they can’t find work that they want, “they make their own niche,” she said.
That is one explanation for the large number of entrepreneurs and the independent spirit of western North Carolina’s largest town.
Ford and Edison among early fans
Tourists have been trekking to Asheville for more than a century. Early on, the city’s mountain air was a prescription doctors wrote for those with tuberculosis and other ills. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone made Asheville the launch pad for their “board meetings,” car camping trips into the mountains.
What has brought visitors to Asheville in more recent times is the Biltmore Estate, the palatial 250-room home of George Vanderbilt, the largest private home ever built in America. Last year, more than 1 million visitors trooped through the estate.
A full-bodied destination
In the last decade, Asheville has grown into a more full-bodied vacation destination. Its thriving downtown is packed with home-grown restaurants, independent bookstores, arts and crafts galleries and inventive retailers. Artists like Gerard have found it a genial place, especially with the development of the River Arts District, which has turned an old industrial area along the French Broad River into a reasonable rent district for art studios and galleries.
Downtown Asheville is so energetic that an average Wednesday night finds sidewalks packed with shoppers, diners and dogs. A seat near a front window or at a sidewalk cafe is all that’s needed for dinner with a show. A “nun” on a unicycle pedals by, a bar on wheels heads up a hill and a purple LaZoom tour bus drives past, packed with partiers.
“This,” said Kessler, looking out on the lively scene, “is as slow as it gets.”