Julian Price - Asheville's Original Angel Investor

A native of North Carolina, Julian Price was a grandson of the founder of Jefferson Pilot, an insurance and broadcasting company. He lived outside of North Carolina for most of his life but made Asheville home for his last decade – a move with profound and continuing repercussions for the city he adopted and came to love.

His generosity and achievements are the stuff of local legend. When he relocated in 1989, Asheville was suffering from decades of neglect. Price noticed and began to rattle the doors and phones of City Hall and to give his money away to support the efforts of downtown pioneers, nonprofits and entrepreneurs. He made early and significant investments in entities such as Mountain Xpress (then the Greenline), Mountain BizWorks (formerly Mountain Microenterprise Fund), the Affordable Housing Coalition, Self-Help Credit Union and many more.

In 1991 he formed Public Interest Projects (PIP) with Pat Whalen. PIP began renovating some of the many empty downtown buildings, with businesses on the street level and residential units above, including the old Penney’s Building, the Asheville Hotel, The Carolina and the Rice-White Building. PIP also invested in and coached local businesses that continue to be key to Asheville’s success, including Laughing Seed, Salsa’s and Zambra restaurants, the Fine Arts Theatre, Malaprop’s bookstore, Skyrunner internet provider and the Orange Peel music club.

The Julian Price Project (julianpriceproject.com) was launched to highlight his ‘guerilla’ methods of activism and philanthropy. A locally-produced documentary Julian Price: Envisioning Community. Investing in People. captured Price’s unorthodox methods and instrumental efforts that transformed a boarded-up downtown into a thriving destination. The film touches on his social activism and philanthropic legacy, but there is a bigger story to tell about his role in the growth of The Community Foundation and the endowment he created to permanently support the causes he cared deeply about during his lifetime.

As more and more people became aware of Price’s generosity, he sought a way to make smart investments without being the front man. That quest led him to Pat Smith, Executive Director of CFWNC from 1984 to 2009. “He walked in wearing a pair of blue jeans wanting to know what we did, and if he gave us money, how we would use it,” says Smith. “He talked about his interest in sustainability and pedestrian improvements, and in helping low-income people.”

At the time, CFWNC had $5 million in assets and two employees. Last year, the Foundation facilitated $18.9 million in philanthropy, and today manages assets exceeding $254 million. The Dogwood Charitable Endowment, the Foundation’s largest, by far, at the time, permanently carries out the charitable legacy of Julian Price and, to date, has granted out more than $3 million.

Price wanted Smith to hire a grants administrator from his initial investment, and Kim McGuire became CFWNC’s first program officer. McGuire worked with Price to design a grant program, and the Dogwood Fund awarded its first grants in 1991.

Price’s fund allowed the Foundation to give grants up to $25,000, five times larger than earlier grants. “And Julian wanted to do multiple-year grants,” said McGuire. “He knew it took longer than one year to get a project going.” Price’s choice to work with CFWNC spurred its subsequent growth. The grant review process they designed helped to shape future funding programs. The sizeable endowment and its track record of grants bolstered the Foundation’s credibility.

“I believe Julian would be moved and deeply gratified to see the exponential growth his initial investment at The Community Foundation has made,” said Meg MacLeod, who was married to Price. “A strong, local community foundation was one of his chief interests,” added daughter Rachel Price. “He wanted other donors to join and bring their ideas and interests and build an effective mechanism to implement them.”

“He was very hands-on in the beginning,” adds McGuire. “He wanted to invest in groups with innovative ideas which were not getting much traditional funding.” What Price made possible through the Dogwood Fund was the Foundation’s ability to take risks and invest in organizations like the Affordable Housing Coalition, which he began to fund through Dogwood rather than privately. What CFWNC made possible was Price’s anonymity.

“Julian was behind the scenes by choice, but he was involved in everything,” says McGuire. “His legacy will live well beyond his years because of who he was and what he did with the resources he had.”

“My goal for the Julian Price Project was to highlight what an individual with vision, heart and determination can do, with whatever resources they have, to make change,” said Rachel Price. The Dogwood Fund continues to support causes that would “float Julian’s boat” according to MacLeod. She continued, “I want others to know that working with CFWNC is rewarding and simple. It’s a great way to stretch your dollars because other investors chip in. Together, we can make a profound difference in these mountains.”

Many thanks to Dorothy Foltz-Gray for her research and contribution to this article.