There are people with a fascination for the machinations of local government, and people who like beer. Esther Manheimer (Anth’93) is at home in both camps, and among the lucky few to combine the two for her work: She’s mayor of Asheville, N.C., a place that “takes its pleasures seriously,” as the New York Times put it.
“Like many folks who run for local office, I have a love for my community and a desire to serve,” says Manheimer, whose family settled in Asheville when she was a teenager. “This is one of the ways I thought I could best serve.”
A city of about 87,000 in the state’s far west, Asheville is thriving — not least because of its dedication to the fun things in life, which attracts 9.8 million visitors each year. This includes everyone from foodies to garden hobbyists to fans of early electronic music. (Asheville was home to late synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog.)
The city has become a hub for microbreweries, which provide many of the higher-skilled, better-paying jobs. Manheimer recently performed the ceremonial “first pour” at the newly expanded Hi-Wire Brewing facility — one of 18 breweries in town.
The Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College has even established a new beer-making degree program, “Brewing, Distillation and Fermentation.”
“People used to say, ‘Oh, that’s a hobby,’” Manheimer says, “but now it’s an industry.”
Manheimer found politics early — protesting apartheid as a teenager and learning firsthand the complex sensitivities of the Middle East during two lengthy stays in Israel, the first before she came to CU-Boulder.
It was at CU that she grew serious about local politics, partly through a political science course that took her to state legislature and county commission meetings.
“That may be a bit of an eye roll for some people, but I think it’s fascinating how local people made decisions about greenways, zoning and trash pickup — for me, that’s what affects people’s everyday life.”
Manheimer, now 44, says her CU days “shaped my life today more than any other place or experience in my life. That was when I got my political feeling and learned how to participate in politics.”
After CU, she returned to Asheville and earned public administration and law degrees at the University of North Carolina. She was elected to Asheville’s city council in 2009, and four years later, mayor.
Living in a vacation destination isn’t always a vacation for the locals, an issue she works hard to manage.
“The balance between the locals and tourism is a constant issue,” says Manheimer. “You have locals who say they’ve been downtown and they didn’t even recognize it because it was so packed.”
But on the whole, tourism has been good for Asheville, and it’s hardly the only game in town.
“One of the things that has made Asheville successful is that we’re not a boom-or-bust town,” she said. “We haven’t put all our eggs in one basket.
Photography by Max Cooper