Karen Cragnolin, Asheville pioneer of river revitalization and RiverLink, dead at 72

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Karen Cragnolin, founder of RiverLink and a passionate advocate for revitalization of the French Broad River, died Jan. 22, 2022.
Karen Cragnolin, founder of RiverLink and a passionate advocate for revitalization of the French Broad River, died Jan. 22, 2022.

ASHEVILLE - Karen Cragnolin, who spearheaded the revitalization of the French Broad River and the River Arts District, has died. She was 72 years old.

Cragnolin founded the regional nonprofit RiverLink in the mid-1980s and fought for the cleanup of the river and ecologically responsible development nearby.

Her daughter, Nikki Harris, confirmed that Cragnolin died Jan. 22.

"It's with a heavy heart that I can confirm that our beloved Karen passed away Saturday night," Harris said via email. "We are heartbroken, but the time we did have together reigns supreme."

More: Hydrologist and geologist Lisa Raleigh steps into role as RiverLink executive director

Cragnolin had been in hospice care for the last five weeks, and she died "peacefully at home" with her husband and daughter at her side, Harris said.

"She was a warrior in a very tough battle against various heart and lung conditions that followed the spinal stroke she suffered during surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm in 2016," Harris said.

RiverLink remains viable today, and works to improve water quality, conserve and restore land, and educate the public, according to its website. The nonprofit continues to work on a plan to transform a former 5.3-acre vehicle junkyard along the river into Karen Cragnolin Park.

More: RiverLink reveals plans to turn former junkyard into Karen Cragnolin Park

Cragnolin retired from RiverLink in 2016 after 30 years. Initially, Cragnolin butted heads with some developers and river area property owners, but they came around to respect her passion and abilities.

Charles Worley, who served as Asheville's mayor from 2001-05, remembered Cragnolin as a tenacious leader with a clear vision.

"I think her tenacity was the reason she was able to accomplish as much as she was able to accomplish, to the point now where that area continues to grow," Worley said.

Cragnolin's importance to riverfront redevelopment can't be understated, he added.

"I think Karen has been the most significant leader of the redevelopment of the river and park areas along the river that we've had," Worley said. "What she started with RiverLink years ago is reflected in what the river is today, and that it is an extremely important part of the arts of Asheville and Western North Carolina, and the whole redevelopment of that area along the river."

More: Answer Man: What's up with Cragnolin River Park? Vance Elementary name change incomplete?

A fascinating background

Bob Cragnolin, Karen's husband of 48 years, said she loved what she did and had a knack for getting others to coalesce around the vision of a cleaner, better developed river area.

"She was good at running meetings, cutting through the BS and focusing resources," Bob Cragnolin said. "And those were often limited resources, and a small staff."

The Cragnolins met when Karen was finishing her law degree at the New England School of Law in Boston, Massachuessetts, Bob Cragnolin said. The couple married and settled in New York City, where Bob Cragnolin worked for General Electric and Karen took a position as an editor at Prentice Hall Publishing in New Jersey.

Bob Cragnolin's work took them to Greece, where Nikki was born, and then in 1983 to Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. In Dubai, Karen Cragnolin worked closely with the U.S. Embassy to initiate the American Business Council, the first locally licensed chamber of commerce in the Middle East.

"Putting that together took a great deal of cooperation with a lot of the locals," Bob Cragnolin said. "And we're also talking about the mid-1980s, when women were still not in the workplace like they are now."

In that position, Karen Cragnolin worked closely with business owners, government officials and other stakeholders, which Bob Cragnolin said turned out to be excellent experience for her future RiverLink endeavor.

The couple moved to Washington, D.C., where Karen worked with the Arab-American Affairs Council as the in-house attorney, Bob Cragnolin said. They moved to Asheville in 1986 when Bob took a position at GE Lighting in East Flat Rock. They lived in Biltmore Forest.

In February 1987, Karen Cragnolin attended a meeting of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, making contacts that spurred her interest in the river, water quality and smart growth.

Around that time, she also met Jean Webb, an activist who headed the French Broad Foundation, and Wilma Dykeman, the visionary author of "The French Broad," a history of the local geology and economy surrounding the river.

As a native Bostonian, Cragnolin had seen the city's redevelopment of its waterfront and knew what was possible here. But Asheville's riverfront was dominated by industrial users, older tobacco warehouses and a cattle stockyard.

Skepticism from locals at first

Property owners were skeptical of a northerner coming here and organizing fancy charrettes to garner what they considered pie-in-the-sky potential uses of riverfront properties, according to Jerry Sternberg, one of those property owners. Sternberg, 90, initially butted heads with Cragnolin but came to admire and respect her determination and vision.

"We were local people who had been here several generations on the river, and many of us were small business owners who felt like we were getting steamrolled by a bunch of outsiders telling us what to do at the river," said Sternberg, who grew up working for his father's junk business along the river. "We thought what they were talking about would put a lot of people out of work."

Sternberg said he went to bat for those small business owners, who carried no clout with local leaders and sometimes had little understanding of the political machinations that could affect them.

Related: Jettie Rae's pulls plans from council agenda; will return with a changed concept next year

"We were not just going to lay down," Sternberg said, noting his initial meetings with Cragnolin were tense. "But while we were adversaries, we were friends. I had a great deal of respect for her."

The two actually later bonded over a city plan to significantly change zoning in the river area, as they both felt it would choke revitalization. Less stringent rules came about, and that also has helped boost the prospect of residential development in the River Arts District, a key interest of Cragnolin's, Sternberg said.

"The enemy of my enemy was my friend," Sternberg said with a laugh. "Karen and I fought very hard to stop that new ordinance. In later years, we became very, very good friend."

Sternberg said he would list Cragnolin as "one of top people who contributed to our community over the past 50 years, up there with (philanthropist) Julian Price and some of the other people who had a vision for Asheville."

In 2016, the Citizen Times named Cragnolin as one of the top 20 women who've made a difference in Asheville. That same year, Cragnolin received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine award, one of North Carolina's highest honors. Cragnolin also received an Athena Leadership Award.

Bob Cragnolin said Karen was not ready to retire in 2016, but health issues made continuing full-time impossible. But she continued to serve on the board of the Self-Help Credit Union, the city's Design Review Committee and with the Town of Biltmore Forest's zoning board.

She also remained passionate about the river — and occasionally still butted heads with folks. As recently as 2019, Cragnolin criticized RiverLink for promoting a plan for a new seafood restaurant to be built on land it owns in the RAD. The restaurant eventually pulled its plans.

RiverLink stands by plan to sell land for restaurant despite criticism

On its website Jan. 24, though, RiverLink described Cragnolin as "our visionary founder" and lauded her achievements. The nonprofit noted that when Cragnolin came to Asheville, decades of neglect "had turned the banks of the French Broad over to auto graveyards, landfills, and other polluting industries.

"The booming factories of the 1920s and ‘30s had closed, leaving abandoned industrial buildings all along Asheville’s urban river corridor," RiverLink stated. "The river seemed inaccessible to residents and visitors alike; views from the bridges passing over the French Broad were blighted by discarded tires, rusting vehicles and an animal rendering plant."

Cragnolin had a vision, though, along with Dykeman, Webb and others, and, "A river movement was born," RiverLink said.

RiverLink Board Chair Anne Keller said in the statement, "Our hearts are heavy at this news.

"She was an amazing person who changed the trajectory of riverside development in Asheville and championed our great, ancient river — for the benefit of the entire community," Keller said. "RiverLink’s board and staff look forward to continuing her work to improve our river and impact the people who live in its watershed.”

RiverLink also will honor Cragnolin's life and accomplishments later this year, and the organization noted it's entering the greenway phase of the new river park along Amboy Road named in Cragnolin's honor. The parcel was acquired under her leadership.

Many, many friends

A voracious reader and avid gardener who loved to cook, watch birds and snag a good deal at TJ Maxx, Cragnolin took a course to learn to drive with hand controls after the spinal stroke. Up until June of 2021, she was still getting out and about, occasionally taking her grandson on outings and keeping up with her many friends, her daughter said.

"She was my very best friend, and so many people can say that about her," Harris said. "We're just so lucky to have had her as long as we did."

Dave Russell, who worked for seven years as the volunteer coordinator at RiverLink under Cragnolin, said Cragnolin's impact on the area will live on for many years.

"I don't think many people in Asheville understand what the city, county and region owe Karen Cragnolin," Russell said via email. "She was a visionary who brought the city French Broad River Park, Carrier Park, the Wilma Dykeman Greenway and much, much more."

The Wilma Dykeman Greenway, which runs through the River Arts District, was years in the making and driven by Cragnolin, Russell noted.

More: Wilma Dykeman, Asheville literary and environmental icon, honored with RAD greenway naming

"Karen was able to bring in a host of city officials, planners, engineers and other experts to work together on the Dykeman Plan," Russell said. "Of all the things RiverLink did over the years, that will be her crowning achievement, I would say, but she was the catalyst behind many other things. There is no telling how many tires the organization pulled out of local streams during her tenure, for example."

At times, Cragnolin was controversial.

The closure of Asheville Motor Speedway in the late 1990s and its conversion to a cycling track and park by the river still remains a sore point with race fans, for instance, although the property had been for sale with no takers. RiverLink brokered a deal that involved amassing donations to buy the property, which ultimately was gifted to the city of Asheville and became Carrier Park.

More: Junkyard to 'jewel': RiverLink hires renowned firm to design Asheville's Karen Cragnolin Park

Jim Stokely, the son of Dykeman, the well-known late local author of "The French Broad" and other books, said Cragnolin and his mother "bonded immediately" during the early days of RiverLink.

"They shared an innate sense of optimism buttressed by discipline and hard work," Stokely said via email. "Her passing is a loss to the community, but her spirit lives on in the River Arts District, in Karen Cragnolin Park, and in her wonderful family."

Dawn Chávez, executive director of the nonprofit GreenWorks, said she feels "incredibly lucky" to have known Cragnolin when she headed up RiverLink.

"The incredible transformation of Asheville's riverfront has much to do with the leadership and vision of Karen Cragnolin," Chávez said. "She was a powerhouse and a force to be reckoned with, fighting passionately for a clean, accessible, vibrant French Broad River."

Russell said Asheville has lost a bastion of institutional knowledge in Cragnolin.

"Karen knew a lot of history and facts about the river and the area," Russell said. "In everything she did, she tried to include some aspects of local history."

Worley said Cragnolin simply was "the most significant force behind everything that has happened at the river to date and which is continuing to happen.

"Her legacy will last a long long time," he said.

Harris said family will hold a private service in the coming weeks and plans to hold a public celebration of Cragnolin's life later this year, "on the river, of course."

John Boyle has been a reporter and columnist for the Citizen Times for more than 25 years. Email JBoyle@CitizenTimes.com.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Karen Cragnolin, Asheville pioneer of river revitalization, has died

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