ASHEVILLE — In the heart of downtown, at the corner of Eagle and Market streets, a November 17 celebration marked the start of a historic undertaking — the $6 million renovations to the YMI Cultural Centera 129-year-old staple that served as an anchor for the city’s black community for generations.
“It’s been a long, long journey,” said Dewana Little, executive director of the YMI Cultural Center. Now that it was here, all she and the other board members, sponsors and local elected officials could talk about was the 100 years to come.
Little, an Asheville native, said it’s always about the future, about creating opportunities for the next generation. In thinking about the way forward, the youth of the community have always been the touchstone, she said.
Like her own 2-year-old daughter Shereece Naomi, who strode through the crowd in a puffy purple jacket, stopping only to sift through the dirt provided for the groundbreaking shovel-and-smile photo shoot that took place minutes previously.
What are the renovations?
The project will include renovations to its basement for community use, a modified kitchen, a newly lit gallery and an air-conditioned archive room, according to a Nov. 10 press release from YMI.
Joel Horne, project construction manager with Durham-based financial institution Self-helpsaid the 19,000 square foot building is full of untapped potential.
As a National Historic Landmark, Horne said the renovations will ensure “all remnants of the historic fabric”, such as the characteristic cobbled cladding of the 1893 English Tudor-style building.
“It’s unique, and it’s unique to this area,” Horne said.
Although the renovations will not affect the original architecture and layout, they will modernize the facility. Horne predicted that at least half a million dollars would be spent on new equipment and systems, such as a “state-of-the-art” auditorium and theater space.
With a fundraising goal of $6.2 million, most of the money will go towards construction. Horne said about $4 million of the budget is fixed construction costs, while $2 million is soft costs, such as design, landscaping and operations.
Although the center is very famous, years of disrepair have taken their toll on the building. Horne said the last major renovations were in the 1980s and the structure fell into “a bit of decline”.
The project plans indicate that the building needs to stabilize its structure and replace/update mechanical systems, fire suppression/alarm systems, means of accessibility, plumbing and lighting.
Much of the building’s space is empty or underutilized, Horne said, and interior renovations will transform the areas into multipurpose event space, classrooms and storage, all with audiovisual systems that will allow the ‘YMI to market itself to the wider community.
He said what struck him was “the untapped potential that was still in the building, which may have been used years ago, but in the last decades has not been used at all “.
Catherine Miller, real estate project manager at Self-Help, said they have been working with YMI to develop the project since 2020. She hopes maximizing space will make it a “destination” and allow YMI to generate revenues and to maintain its programming.
In addition to the main building, four commercial spaces are associated with the property. The building’s tenants, Noir Collective AVL and PennyCup at YMI will be able to stay throughout construction, Miller said.
The YMI itself moved into spaces provided by United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County and WNC Bridge Foundation in the interim.
Construction officially began in October. Its completion is estimated in the summer of 2023.
Little said of all things to come, she is very happy to be back in the building.
“We’re so grateful for the support from the WNC Bridge Foundation and United Way, but there’s nothing like being in your own space,” Little said. “Our building is like our home, we just can’t wait to come back.”
“Pillar of our community”
Al Whitesides, Buncombe County Commissioner, was among the speakers at the groundbreaking on November 17. He said six generations of his family had used the YMI, and he hoped his great-great-grandson would one day welcome others through the door. It was a story echoed by many about the YMI in Asheville, one of the oldest black cultural centers in the country.
“The YMI is a pillar of our community. It’s been around for over 100 years, and we want it to be around for the next 100,” Whitesides said.
Of the fundraising goal of $6.2 million, about $3.4 million is being raised, according to the release. Of this amount, the first $800,000 was hotel tax grant funds from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority. The YMI landed an additional $500,000 in grant funds from the National Park Service.
Vic Isley, president and CEO of Explore Asheville and the Buncombe County TDA, echoed the desire at the event to see the YMI secure in Asheville for generations to come.
“I can’t think of a more meaningful place in our community to mark the making of place than the corner of Eagle and Market streets here at the YMI Cultural Center,” Isley said.
YMI now uses its 1893 downtown building for a range of training and support, from managing personal finances to business incubation and youth programs.
Located on South Market Street, the YMI was once the heart of the downtown black business district. It served as a refuge for African American residents during segregation and the Jim Crow era, supporting a library, professional services, and orchestra.
Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Current advice? Email [email protected] or message on Twitter @slhonosky.