A panel of six civic and arts leaders gathered to express their support for renovation to the currently closed Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in front of hundreds of sweat-soaked attendees who met in Explore Asheville Arena on Aug. 21.
Ironically highlighting the auditorium’s need for renovations, the air conditioning in the arena, which is adjacent to the auditorium, was malfunctioning at the beginning of the meeting.
“I would just like to give kudos to Chris Corl for strategically making it really hot as hell in here. So, that’s really helpful from a strategy and cost-benefit analysis for us each individually,” joked Vic Isley, president of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, in her opening remarks.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer led a chorus of support for the 83-year-old city landmark, which was forced to close temporarily July 5 after its heating, ventilation and air conditioning units failed.
“I think this is an amazing opportunity. I understand the city makes some revenue from it. But this is really our civic duty as a city to provide a forum for people to enjoy the arts, to enjoy one another, to enjoy their community and also support our economy here in Asheville. And I very much believe in that,” she said.
Corl, director of community and regional entertainment facilities for the City of Asheville who manages Harrah’s Cherokee Center, said he plans to have the auditorium open again for free, nonticketed shows and community events at a reduced capacity in November. But he said he wouldn’t consider booking ticketed shows again until the city has some sort of timeline in place for major renovations.
Ultimately, what happens to the auditorium comes down to how much the city is willing to invest, ranging from roughly $40 million to $50 million for basic infrastructure upgrades to nearly $200 million for a renovation and expansion to accommodate Broadway shows.
Corl said the decision comes down to what people want the room to be and how much the community is comfortable spending collectively.
While all the presented options fix the glaring issues with the HVAC system, different renovations will result in different revenue opportunities for the city and carry various upfront price tags.
A multipurpose flat floor design, which would allow for a standing-room-only pit, would cost $90 million to $110 million. To improve the auditorium in its current “raked floor” arrangement would cost $105 million to $125 million. A “significant acoustic-driven” renovation — priced at $130 million to $150 million — would improve acoustics in the auditorium.
No matter what plan is chosen, it’s a heavy financial lift, Manheimer said.
“It’s a real challenge. It’s a big deal,” she said.
The panel discussed the possibility of seeking public funding for the renovations, but Manheimer wasn’t optimistic about what success a bond referendum would have for what is essentially a parks and recreation project, citing the failure of referendums to fund Greensboro’s Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts. The Tanger Center was ultimately privately funded.
Manheimer and Isley were more bullish on a McCormick Field-style funding project, which the city, along with the TDA and Buncombe County, approved this year.
“I can’t emphasize enough to you how … monumental that is to bring lots of partners together to do a significant multimillion-dollar project in Asheville. There’s not a lot of … examples you could point to where that’s happened in recent memory,” Manheimer said.
Big price tags were a factor the last time Asheville considered renovating the Wolfe in 2020, when a $100 million makeover was proposed before the COVID-19 lockdowns temporarily eliminated the need for a large public gathering space.
On a tour of the facility before the Aug. 21 town hall meeting, Corl pointed out that seating lighting is now shut off in much of the house because electrical issues have caused more than one chair to catch on fire during the heat of the day. Large sections of paint can be seen peeling off the ceiling and walls.
Outside, a narrow alley barely large enough for a semitruck runs along the south side of the building, providing the only stage-access point for musicians, which includes a steep 60-degree ramp.
But it was the failing HVAC system that finally ended scheduled events. The first casualty was the Asheville Symphony, which canceled all its shows in its home theater and relocated them to First Baptist Church of Asheville, Brevard Music Center and Salvage Station for the rest of the season, creating an “existential crisis” for the organization, said Asheville Symphony Executive Director Daniel Crupi.
Relocation has meant the symphony must increase its number of performances to make up for the smaller venues, which then increases artistic costs, Crupi said. The symphony can weather the storm financially for a couple of years, he said, but the loss of the Wolfe will break the organization in a few years.
“The financial burden to the symphony is [now] greatly increased, our economic impact in terms of a tourism driver is greatly reduced. And the status of the organization and the musicians also that rely on this organization to make a living — all of that is in jeopardy. So, for us, the situation is very, very dire,” he said.