Local read: The Rise of Asheville by Marilyn Ball

In her 2015 book The Rise of Asheville: An Exceptional History of Community Building, author Marilyn Ball looks at an often-ignored historical period: the recent past. Set between the late 1970s and 2000, Ball’s book shines light on the stories of some of the people and businesses that served as catalysts for Asheville’s transformation from a dying downtown to a thriving tourist mecca.

Ball sees herself as “…part of an influx of people who came to this area to create a new way of life.” She describes a community of artists, entrepreneurs and homesteaders who built a unique local culture that valued social justice, cooperation, diversity and fun. With downtown nearly deserted in the wake of the opening of the Asheville Mall in the 1970s, low rents in downtown’s mostly-vacant buildings allowed folks with more vision than money to start a variety of local businesses including retail shops, restaurants, health food stores, theaters and music venues.

In 1991, Ball began working for Kelso Advertising & Design, a local agency she describes as pivotal in building awareness of Western North Carolina among a broader audience. During Ball’s 18 years with the company, she worked with a sampling of the region’s pivotal tourism and economic development projects, some of which have found their way into this book

Ball structures her tale in ten chapters, each of which explores the role of a local group, business or project:

Saving Downtown Asheville tells the story of a small group of citizens who mobilized an entire community to prevent the destruction of eleven acres of the downtown area to make way for a mall. In the process, they preserved the historical heritage and unique charm of their city.

Stone Soup shows the power of coming together in community. A small group of visionaries with a commitment to positive social change started a business that became a gathering place for the larger community and provided a foundation for the natural food culture in Asheville.

Manna Food Bank arose when a group of concerned citizens from across the region came together to address the issue of hunger, and over time, they engaged the entire community in providing the solution.

HandMade in America is an example of a more complex regional network of local collaborations that supports artists, stimulates economic growth through tourism and led to a more unified regional community.

River Arts District emerged slowly from deserted warehouses and factories and became a vibrant cultural and economic center for Asheville.

Smoky Mountain Host is an example of small businesses going beyond competition to work together for the good of all. With limited money, a clear vision and vast natural resources, those entrepreneurs created a marketing cooperative that increased tourism and stimulated economic growth in their region.

The Great Smoky Mountains Golf Association also embraced cooperation over competition, as golf club owners joined forces to promote their region as a golf destination, increasing financial success for themselves and their communities.

Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, another regional network of local groups, demonstrates the power of volunteers in small towns coming together to preserve their cultural and natural heritage.

The Family Store is a more personal story, as two young women worked together and found others who supported their project, to document and preserve an important part of Asheville’s historical heritage.

YMI and The Block tells of a collaboration that led to the development of a community center that became the heart of the African American business community in Asheville.

Though her book is not intended to be an exhaustive account of all the forces that shaped the Asheville of today, Ball’s personal history coincides with an important period in the city’s development. Ball shares information of interest to both those who were here for the transformation and others who came to Asheville once its rebirth was well underway. Available at Malaprop’s Bookstore in downtown Asheville, as well as at Barnes & Noble and online booksellers, The Rise of Asheville: An Exceptional History of Community Building retails for $21.99.


Originally published Feb. 15, 2016