Civic Center director exits the stage

As director of the Asheville Civic Center Director for the past decade, David Pisha has on occasion found himself in the beam of the spotlight—and sometimes, but not always, the kind that brings accolades. Pisha, who is stepping down from his role at the end of July, has served as not only the manager but also as a kind of figurehead for the facility, appearing before City Council and other local-government bodies to describe just what is going on inside the notoriously outdated building.

From Warren to Waits: Ten-year Civic Center vet David Pisha, who’s set to retire as director, says the venue is still a vital part of Asheville’s arts culture. Photo by Jonathan Welch.

“Ten years is a long time in this business. It takes a strange weed to do that,” says City Council member Jan Davis, who, as Council’s liason to the Civic Center Commission, has pushed for steps to upgrade the facility. “It’s an admirable job he has done.”

Pisha agrees that he’s had a good run, especially given the amount of attention—good and bad—the facility gets around town. But despite his many public appearances to defend the center’s performances, Pisha hasn’t gotten bogged down in contentious issues like much-needed infrastructure improvements or Council member Carl Mumpower‘s ballyhooed venture into drug enforcement at jam-band concerts.

Instead, Pisha has focused on keeping the Civic Center running and reducing its operating deficit. Over the past decade, that figure has dropped from the million dollar range to around $300,000 annually.

In a recent interview, Pisha addressed what some have seen as a major shortcoming: the center’s inability to keep a local sports franchise long-term. A run of short-lived teams from small hockey, basketball and arena-football leagues petered out—evidence, Pisha says, that there is not enough of a fan base to support such enterprises.

“There is a perception in the community that the Civic Center has done something to chase out sports teams,” Pisha says. “We have not.”

And though his relationship with the Civic Center Commission, which advises City Council, has sometimes been, as Davis puts it, “rocky,” there are those who still have good things to say.

Pisha handled his duties well, says Commission member and former chair Max Alexander, especially “given what he had” to work with.

The departing director points out that even as sports teams floundered, Council members cracked down and the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium’s ceiling dripped rainwater onto performers, he kept his attention on meeting Asheville’s varied entertainment needs.

“We try to provide a crowd-safe environment,” he says of Mumpower’s challenge to crack down on drug use during this year’s RatDog concert. “We don’t really have enforcement powers of our own.” That role, he says, falls to the police. That said, he adds that the “no backpack” policy implemented around the same time will continue to stand. “That’s going to be standard practice from here on out.”

A new Civic Center director has not been chosen, and as yet, Pisha is not sure what his next move will be. Davis says that fresh blood is a good thing for the facility, noting that he has seen a healthy change of direction each time a new director is brought on.

Pisha has some advice for whoever takes the reigns. “I wouldn’t make changes day one,” he says. “Learn about Asheville. Learn what people want.”

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