It was one of our toughest assignments yet: pick ten Western North Carolina women—just ten—who have interesting, newsworthy or otherwise noteworthy projects coming up in 2010. We started out with a very long list. (And we very much appreciate everyone who sent ideas our way.) To the women who didn’t make our list: keep up the good work. It was encouraging to hear about so many of you getting grants, starting new businesses, taking on big jobs and projects or otherwise shaking things up in our community this year. The ten women we selected are quite a diverse crew: a blogger, a publisher, a rock club marketer, two philanthropists, two artists, two politicians and a hospital administrator. Some are well known, others less so. Some are veterans in their fields, a few are just getting started. They’re not your typical power players. (Okay, so a couple of them are.) But they’re all powerful in different ways, and for very different reasons. They’re cool. And hot. And bound to make a splash in 2010.
"I’m not in anyone’s back pocket, including Elaine Lite… I’m a listener. I’m going to listen to all sides."
by Jess McCuan . photos by Matt Rose and Rimas Zailskas
Perhaps you knew her as an attorney for Van Winkle, a high-profile law firm in downtown Asheville. But perhaps you didn’t know her at all. Before last fall’s Asheville City Council race, many people had never heard of Esther Manheimer, a bookish 38-year-old mother of three. She has been part of several community groups but had never run for political office. Ashevilleans certainly took notice during the election, where Manheimer positively cleaned up. She got the most votes of any candidate, including all three incumbents. Now, she’s the only woman on the council (besides Mayor Terry Bellamy). Which means she’ll be milling about in a man’s world—as usual. “I’m comfortable there because I’ve been doing it for years,” Manheimer says, referring to her ten-year law career. “That doesn’t bother me in the slightest.”
She may be a first-time politician, but she’s no stranger to politics. After law school, she spent four years working as counsel for various committees in the North Carolina General Assembly. Nor is she new to Asheville. In fact, Manheimer seems to ruffle at the implication. Last year, she did a radio spot with an Asheville blogger who said something like, “‘Well, where have you been? I haven’t seen you around,’” Manheimer recalls. “The person co-hosting with him said, ‘Well, she hasn’t been around where you are.’ And that’s exactly right…There’s a whole bunch of us in Asheville who have lived here forever and we’re just doing our community thing. We’re not the subjects of blogs.”
Manheimer, a land-use attorney, is married to Enka High wrestling coach Mark Harris. She has spent six years in various positions on the board of Asheville’s Jewish Community Center, and her three sons—Levi, Greyson and Asa—attended classes at the JCC. Her father is Ron Manheimer, a philosophy professor who ran UNC-Asheville’s Center for Creative Retirement for 21 years (and recently retired himself). Her mother, Caroline Manheimer, is a fiber artist and former librarian. Esther has dual degrees in law and public administration from UNC-Chapel Hill, but here’s a little-known fact: as an undergrad at the University of Colorado, she majored in anthropology, and in her senior thesis, she compared breastfeeding habits between humans and great apes. “I’ve always loved to analyze human nature,” she says, later joking that her anthropology training helped her discover the real truth: “Are we really more like a chimpanzee? You have a group of females and their young that support each other. The males run around the periphery with sticks.”
While Manheimer may have kept a relatively low profile through the years, the North Asheville mom has been steadily networking. “It wasn’t ever with the thought in mind that, ‘Oh, one day this will pay off and I’m going to run for office.’ But when you do run for office, you call it all in. And there was a lot to call in,” she says.
She and others in city government will need to call in more than favors to dig the city out of its current financial hole. In early January, city manager Gary Jackson and an executive team delivered a stark status report that said Asheville faces a $5 million shortfall in 2010. The long recession has “exposed structural weaknesses in the city’s financial foundation that were previously compensated for by strong growth in property values,” the report said. The city must explore revenue-generating alternatives if it plans to keep up its current services.
Manheimer believes Asheville is actually relatively well positioned to weather the downturn. Its healthy fund balance and low debt load mean it has more cash in its “savings accounts” than some cities its size. There is a significant “cash-flow problem,” she says, which means Asheville may be forced to consider options like a sales tax increase, or funneling county tourism tax dollars to the city. But she believes those options, along with several others on the table, will help get the city through its cash crunch in 2010. “We won’t be cutting core services,” she says. “The average citizen is not going to notice any changes.”
Manheimer’s detractors say she’s in the back pocket of private developers. During her campaign, a website created by the Progressive Research Group (whose treasurer, according to Buncombe County election records, was former council candidate Elaine Lite) claimed that Manheimer’s job was to lobby the city council on behalf of developers. The site also said some of her biggest financial supporters were right-wingers. Manheimer rebuffs those claims. “I’m not in anyone’s back pocket, including Elaine Lite,” she says. “There is a segment in Asheville that is very wary of anyone involved in private business. That includes me. I think that, over time, anyone who’s still a skeptic will learn that I have my own independent mind and I’m not in anyone’s pocket. I’m a listener. I’m going to listen to all sides.”
Manheimer seems quite confident about her ability to tackle a number of city issues—from budget shortfalls to I-26 connector designs to rewriting stormwater regulations. Her job with Van Winkle and her spot on the city’s Board of Adjustment have given her a front row seat to see the way the city works. (The Board of Adjustment deals with zoning requests and building code changes; Manheimer was a member until she resigned in January.) In the run-up to the city council election last fall, she also had to sit through dozens of forums, fielding questions from well-informed and sometimes downright antagonistic residents. “We have a pretty grueling political process for potential city council members now,” she says. “If you didn’t know your stuff with all of those issues, that would have been very uncomfortable. You can’t fudge it in Asheville.”
"The Latino community here asked us to come, practically begged us for months."
by Jess McCuan . photo by Brent Fleury
Move over, La Voz. In 2010, there will be two Spanish-language newspapers in town. The first, the weekly La Voz Independiente, has been published by Robert McCarson since 2003. The newcomer is Hilda Gurdian’s La Noticia, which rolled out its first Western North Carolina edition on December 9 last year. Gurdian and her husband Alvaro, along with a staff of 25, have been publishing the Charlotte edition of La Noticia weekly for 14 years. This is their first expansion. Gurdian says the number of Asheville-area Latino readers is small but growing, and she sees tremendous potential. Besides, “the Latino community here asked us to come, practically begged us for months,” she says.
The new weekly will cover national issues like immigration reform, education and health, along with hot-button topics like counting Latinos in the 2010 census. Gurdian says the paper, which currently has one reporter and a handful of freelancers in Asheville, will also be “hyperlocal,” family-friendly and community-oriented. “Mothers and fathers can pick it up in the street without any fear,” she says.
Gurdian, who grew up in Venezuela and studied business at Bournemouth College in England, has a background in advertising. For six years after college, she ran an agency that created ads for her family’s regional newspapers and radio stations in Venezuela. But why, in this era of dying newspapers, would anyone place their bets on a new print product? “The Latino community is not a lot into the Internet yet,” she says. “We don’t see that they come to the Internet for news and information on an everyday basis. They still prefer print, and we want to be there for them.” For his part, McCarson, the La Voz publisher, is skeptical of La Noticia’s claim that it has 42,000 Western North Carolina readers. But he does believe that print newspapers are alive and well among Latinos. “Print isn’t dead in the Hispanic world,” says McCarson, a former newspaper reporter who grew up in Brevard. “Hispanics have different reading habits than Anglos do.”
La Noticia doesn’t have an Asheville office yet, but they plan to open one in the spring. In the meantime, the Gurdians, who live in Charlotte, have come to Asheville often to meet with local WNC leaders and groups. Gurdian believes print media is here to stay. She also believes networking—especially in-person meetings—are the key to building any organization anywhere. “I take it as a mission to meet people,” she says. “I’m from South America. I’m an immigrant. I speak with an accent. I look different. I really have to go out and see people, so that they see me too. So that they see that even though I look different on the outside, on the inside, I’m the same like everybody else.”
"We never have the same audience twice."
by Joanne O'Sullivan . photo by Brent Fleury
Catching a bluegrass concert in Asheville has never been tough. But not long ago, seeing a buzz-worthy indie-rock band might have meant driving to the Cat’s Cradle club in Carrboro. For a good hip-hop show, you might have gone all the way to Atlanta. Increasingly, says Liz Whalen, marketing and special events director at Asheville’s The Orange Peel, it’s more like a reverse commute: the Peel is attracting the kind of shows that music lovers are willing to travel for. Now, she and her colleagues are working to put Asheville even more solidly on the music map. Last year, the Peel poured $300,000 into an expansion and renovation, thanks to a loan guarantee from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority. The makeover includes 400 additional square feet of space and a swanky members-only downstairs club, Pulp, which opened in December last year. At a time when many local businesses are holding their breath, The Orange Peel is rockin’ right along.
In the world of music venues, capacity is king. “There’s a line between a thousand people and twelve hundred,” says Whalen. When booking agents and band managers are scoping out show sites, the Peel, which maxed out at 942, came up slightly short. “We would lose bands to cities with a slightly bigger venue,” says Whalen. The club’s space always had room for improvement. It was built as the Skateland Rollerdome in the ‘50s and later occupied by a series of R & B clubs, the last of which was called The Original Orange Peel. The basement was unfinished, and within the cavernous main floor, a few areas were underutilized. Through the years, management came up with ideas for changes, often based on customer input: box seats, for example, and serving booze at a second bar. But with last year’s credit crunch, a major renovation was a financial challenge. The solution, Whalen says, came from looking at the changing nature of the club’s audiences.
Since joining the management team four years ago, Whalen has helped beef up the club’s “street teams” (well-connected individuals who can help build buzz for a show), adding players in cities like Knoxville, Charlotte and Greenville. They put out flyers, posters and show calendars, but more importantly, they build interest by word of mouth. The club has also been building its brand at regional music festivals such as Bonnaroo, putting magnets and show calendars into the hands of a built-in audience—those who are willing to travel to see bands. In analyzing ticket sales, Whalen says, she discovered that up to 60 percent of the audience for certain shows came from out of town, bringing tourism dollars with them. When Smashing Pumpkins chose the club for a nine-show residency (a practice run for their comeback tour) in 2007, fans from around the world camped out in Asheville. Which may have helped secure the Peel its Top 5 Club honor in Rolling Stone in 2008. Those stats and honors proved the club was a music destination and helped secure the loan from the tourism authority.
"I like to have people bring their own baggage to the drawings."
by Ursula Gullow . photo by Anthony Bellemare
They make witch huts. They paint trailers. They reclaim feminine stereotypes and symbols they once rejected. Whether they’re trying to or not, Asheville artists Kreh Mellick and Tara Jensen are creating work that draws on elements of pop culture and folklore—both of which are hot in the art world right now. Both young artists will be featured in an all-women exhibition in August at the Satellite Gallery in downtown Asheville. Mellick plans to show her paintings and drawings at a temporary downtown art space called Project Gallery, while Jensen will have a solo show at Satellite later this year.
When she was a child, Kreh Mellick says she was mostly concerned with coloring in the figures in her coloring books, her interest waning when it came time to fill in the backgrounds. Today she still chooses to color inside the lines, and this is precisely what puts her austere gouache paintings outside the box.
Depicting primarily women, Mellick creates haunting narratives of characters interacting within open spaces of untouched paper. "The landscapes are implied," says Mellick. "I like to have people bring their own baggage to the drawings."
Mellick, a bookbinder, took up drawing at Penland School of Crafts two years ago and finished the program last spring. Then she traveled to Iceland for three months to develop her work, taking along a notebook filled with patterns her grandmother had collected. The patterns were inspiring. "Stuff I would consider really girly—like flowers, twists and bows—I now look at as traditional elements to put into my work," she says. "You go through an angsty teenage thing where you reject everything your parents tell you and then you realize it makes up who you are even though you fought it."
"It's like generic global clip art from growing up reading National Geographic and watching TV."
by Ursula Gullow . photo by Anthony Bellemare
Installation artist Tara Jensen puts a contemporary spin on traditional crafting techniques, embellishing her paper cuts, fiber sculptures, paintings, drawings and papier-mâché sculptures with bright neon colors and patterns based on indigenous and traditional European ornamentation. “With installation, you’re orchestrating all these tiny relationships between things. You’re not just focusing on one thing and the viewer’s relationship to it,” says Jensen.
After finishing an artist residency in Vermont last spring, Jensen created a “witch hut,” a tepee-like structure, at a Burlington gallery. Inside, she fabricated hundreds of little relics using such materials as fluorescent-hued fabrics and puff paint. Last November, just after moving to Asheville, she traveled to Japan to install Lucky Fruits, a piece comprised of hundreds of soft sculptures sewn and stuffed by hand. Her visual lexicon? “It’s the junk in the back of your brain,” Jensen says. “It’s like generic global clip art from growing up reading National Geographic and watching TV.”
"The one thing we all need more than anything in this world is a purpose."
by Jennifer Maurer . photo by Brent Fleury
Lisbeth Riis Cooper is fascinated with ice, but her life moves at anything but a glacial pace. The cofounder and vice chairwoman of the nonprofit CooperRiis Healing Community is a former fashion designer turned philanthropist and mental health care reformer. In January, after tending to every detail of the renovation of her new mental health facility in Montford, she flew to Antarctica to see ice floes. “It’s the only continent I haven’t visited,” she joked, while directing construction teams to work on finishing touches for the new project, a $4.7 million overhaul of a Highland Hospital building, part of the same mental health complex where Zelda Fitzgerald stayed in the 1930s and ‘40s.
The Asheville facility is the second in the CooperRiis Healing Community, which Lisbeth cofounded in 2000 with her husband, Don Cooper, a former insurance executive. The first is an 80-acre organic farm near Columbus that accommodates up to 36 full-time residents suffering from such conditions as schizophrenia, depression and personality disorders. The Montford facility, which will treat similar disorders, can house 24 full-time residents and five live-in staff. The building, outfitted with a meditation room and chic, retro décor, had a soft opening in early February and will have a grand opening in May. Prominent New York psychiatrist Oliver Sacks will attend the ceremony, and according to Cooper, plans to feature CooperRiis in an upcoming book.
The couple’s foray into the field followed ten years of navigating a fragmented mental healthcare system trying to help their daughter, who struggled with mental illness. Frustrated and angry, Lisbeth finally realized she would have to create, from the ground up, the healing community her daughter (and others like her) needed. The Coopers take a holistic, positive approach. Residents focus on goals rather than the limitations of their diagnoses. “The one thing we all need more than anything in this world is a purpose,” Cooper says, “a reason to get up in the morning. In our community, we help residents find their reason.”
"My husband calls me Your Excellency."
by Jess McCuan . photo by Matt Rose
During her mayoral campaign last fall, Barbara Volk, a longtime Hendersonville City Councilwoman, promised that if she were elected, she would shake things up a bit. “It will be gentle shaking,” she said in early January, a few weeks after she was sworn in as the city’s first female mayor. “Gentle shaking” seems to sum things up well. Yes, she’ll be switching up a few priorities—putting more emphasis on environmental projects, for example, and on e-government, offering more information and services through the city’s website. But Volk, who has lived in Hendersonville since 1975 and served on City Council since 1989, isn’t likely to ruffle too many feathers. Though she’ll be overseeing a “facelift” for downtown, she’s interested in preserving the quaint look and feel of Hendersonville, which has a population of around 13,000 and is best known for its fall apple festival and historic buildings. “One of the things people like about downtown [Hendersonville] is that it is so historic. It looks like Mayberry,” she says. “We’re not doing anything to change the character.”
Volk, who has degrees in math and medical records management, worked as a part-time bookkeeper at her husband’s Hendersonville pediatric clinic for close to 20 years. She’s an expert in parliamentary procedure, which means neighborhood associations and other groups occasionally hire her to help them run meetings more efficiently. She plans to give the same treatment to city council members. At a council retreat in February, one of the goals will be to improve communication before, after and during meetings. “I don’t anticipate everything is going to pass 5-0,” Volk says. “I just want to be very open with council members and be sure they can be open with me.” About a year and a half ago, the city passed a comprehensive 20-year plan, but now the hard work of implementing that plan begins in earnest. Volk wants to take a step back and make sure council decisions square with the comprehensive plan. “[We should consider] a little more of the philosophical,” she says. “Not just—this is the policy, let’s vote it up or down. But why are we doing this? It should all fit in the big picture of things.”
Development, a hot topic in any city, is especially divisive in Hendersonville. A few years ago, a planned downtown residential project threatened the city’s building-height limit of 64 feet (no higher than the lower dome of the historic Main Street courthouse). City council approved a height extension for the development, an eight-story condo complex called the Sunflower/Carolina Grand, but Hendersonvilleans raised such a ruckus that state politicians stepped in, and the extension was overturned in a citywide vote.
Now, the problem is not too-tall buildings but the fact that most developers have run out of cash. “People still have the misperception that we’re turning away all development downtown. We turned down one development, but there were six others that were approved,” Volk says, noting that many of the projects that were approved were never built. “I would have loved to have seen them come.”
So far, she’s enjoying her mayoralty. People aren’t exactly sure how to greet her in the hallways—Mrs. Mayor? Your Honor? The Mayoress? “My husband calls me Your Excellency,” she jokes. Everyone else has the next four years to figure it out.
"These are not alternative therapies, which means 'instead of.' These work with traditional medicine to aid healing."
by Janet Hurley . photo by Matt Rose
Asheville is something of an alternative-medicine mecca, with a yoga studio practically on every block. Still, you don’t necessarily expect to find much alternative healing happening at a mainstream hospital—much less the region’s largest, Mission Hospital. Until now. In 2008, Mission’s then-CEO Joseph Damore steered the hospital toward opening an Integrative Healthcare Services department. He hired Lourdes Lorenz, a former critical care nurse with a master’s degree in integrative healthcare, to head up the department, which threw open its doors in August 2009. Damore resigned last fall after months of controversy over hospital-physician relations. But the new department—which offers treatments like aromatherapy, massage therapy and biofeedback, and has a full-time pet therapist on staff—is now finally in full swing. “I want health care professionals to return to the reason they got into this in the first place—the patient,” Lorenz says.
When Damore approached her to start Integrative Health Services, Lorenz, 51, knew all of her life experience had come together. Born in Cuba, she was raised in the U.S. with 13 brothers and sisters, moving often to accommodate her father’s medical career. She didn’t follow in her father’s footsteps—at first. Instead, she tapped her way to New York in hopes of a stage career and was hired, in the early ‘70s, to do public relations for Radio City Music Hall. She discovered she was good at handling people and crisis through teamwork—perhaps what prompted her to enter critical care nursing. From direct care she moved into administration, first at a hospital in Orlando, and then for a group of cardiologists there. Then she took a job as director of a critical care unit at St. Francis Hospital in Indianapolis. Lorenz first saw Asheville in 1989 and says the mountains “grabbed her soul.” She returned in 2005.
The new department’s staff of seven currently works in Mission’s Heart Center, and by 2011, they’ll open a spa-like room in Mission’s Cancer Center. Lorenz is board certified in advanced holistic nursing and has trained more than 110 staff, mostly nurses, in complementary health modalities such as healing touch, biofeedback, guided imagery and focused breathing techniques. Lorenz stresses the term complementary. “These are not alternative therapies, which means instead of,” she says. “These work with traditional medicine to aid healing.” One of her biggest challenges is not convincing patients of the effectiveness of such treatments, but overcoming skepticism on the part of fellow hospital staffers. Lorenz does this in part through offsite retreats. In the last year, more than 330 hospital staff have attended retreats to experience integrative health modalities firsthand.
By early next year, integrative health services will be offered on an outpatient basis, but, she says, they won’t compete with area practitioners. “I want to meet with local providers of these services to see how we can work together,” Lorenz says. “I believe that there is abundance for everyone.”
"This is where I was supposed to end up."
by Jess McCuan . photo by Brent Fleury
Last fall, Elizabeth Brazas took the helm of one of Asheville’s most powerful philanthropic organizations, the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, which has about $150 million in assets and last year doled out more than $10 million in grants to area nonprofits. As if that task wasn’t tall enough for a newcomer to Asheville, Brazas, 43, will be running a charitable organization at a time when even the wealthiest among us are feeling cautious. Last December, the Chronicle of Philanthropy polled 395 charities and found that a third of them expected total donations to decline by ten percent or more in 2009. Giving among the nation’s wealthiest was in a worse slump. In January, the Chronicle found that 2009’s ten biggest donations totaled just $2.7 billion, compared with $8 billion in 2008.
But Brazas feels she’s up to the task. She did, after all, survive 2009 as chief client services officer at the Threshold Group, a Gig Harbor, Washington, wealth management firm that works with 13 ultra-high net worth families. “It was a tough year for investments,” says Brazas, a New Jersey native who has had wealth management jobs at Morgan Stanley, Deloitte & Touche and Wachovia Bank. “I spent a lot of time thinking about the psychology of investing and being philanthropic.”
After longtime Community Foundation president Pat Smith retired last year, the foundation’s board scoured the country for a replacement and thought Brazas’ credentials and background made her a good fit. She majored in English at Davidson College near Charlotte and initially thought banking was boring. Many of her friends signed up for banking jobs directly after college. She went to law school instead, and became interested in estates and trusts in her first job out of school. Brazas had never lived in Asheville before she moved here last fall. (Her husband Stephen and six-year-old son Colin are still in Gig Harbor, Washington, waiting for their house to sell.) She says she’ll spend much of 2010 settling in, getting to know Asheville and making rounds to nonprofits and other groups the Community Foundation reaches. The foundation may not be as glamorous as Morgan Stanley or Deloitte & Touche, but Brazas likes it that way. “We’re not going to be bought out. We’re not going to merge with anybody,” Brazas says of the foundation. “That’s one of the reasons I’m here…I had a very circuitous path, but this is where I was supposed to end up.”
"A lot of mom bloggers are almost as influential as celebrities, but they can't afford the groceries."
by Jess McCuan . photo by Brent Fleury
She can change a diaper, send a Tweet and type up a blog post all at the same time. She’s a former newspaper reporter turned social networking maven, and last year she organized Asheville’s first-ever mom blogger conference, Type-A Mom, which attracted 300 people and corporate sponsors like HP, Land’s End and Little Debbie. Any way you slice it, Kelby Carr, who has 21,000 Twitter followers and 1,500 Facebook friends, is Asheville’s mommy blogger with the mostest.
When Carr first decided to work at home full time, she thought she would miss so much. She had been a reporter for 15 years and moved to Asheville in 2006 for a job with the Citizen-Times. “Being a career person was such a part of my personality,” she says. By 2007, she had a daughter, Gabrielle, now 7, and twins Kaya and Ethan, now 3. But once she figured out how to work during their naptimes and bedtimes, she realized saying sayonara to her cubicle wasn’t as difficult as she thought.
Now that the phenomenon of mommy blogging has taken off everywhere, Carr wants to establish some ground rules. Or rather, re-establish them. Big companies have figured out that moms hold the purse strings, and mommy bloggers can be tremendously influential in buying decisions. The companies send free products to mom bloggers, who then post “reviews” on their sites. And therein lies the trouble. “Is a person raving about how wonderful this vacuum is because they just got it for free?” Carr says. In 2008, Wal-Mart drew fire when it rounded up 11 mom bloggers, the Elevenmoms, to review Wal-Mart products and offer Wal-Mart-approved money-saving tips on their sites. And Nestle, which has been lambasted for years for selling baby formula in third-world countries, stirred up fresh criticism by flying mom bloggers to California to sample new products.
All the influence peddling brings up even more issues—like how should mom bloggers get paid, if not with free goodies? “A lot of mom bloggers are almost as influential as celebrities, but they can’t afford the groceries,” Carr says. “They’re influence-rich but cash-poor.” Late last year, Carr launched a site called Momtent. It essentially matches up her database of mom bloggers with companies who pay them to generate online content. She also recently joined a Nielsen advisory committee to help measure influence among bloggers. Is sheer traffic a sign of popularity? Or is there more prestige in comments and commenters? “Virtual charisma—a lot of people have a hard time measuring it,” she says. Not hers.