An array of Western North Carolina civic and economic leaders took to the stage of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Jan. 15 to drum up support for improving the 80-year-old performance space — literally. Before the official presentation began, percussionists from the Asheville Symphony Youth Orchestra and Mars Hill University treated the roughly 500 people in attendance to a lively rendition of thundering West African rhythms.
But the real show was the unveiling of a $100 million proposal to dramatically reconfigure the facility.
“We are quickly approaching the day where something has to happen,” proclaimed Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer. “We’re reaching a critical stage — some would say we’ve already reached that critical stage — in terms of what this infrastructure can handle. And we need to re-up and make a significant investment in it so that it can continue to contribute to the vitality of this city and to enhance our experience as Ashevilleans here in our own town.”
Chris Corl, general manager of the city-owned Harrah’s Cherokee Center — Asheville, which includes the auditorium, called the proposed makeover “not a renovation but a transformation” of the hall. The aging facility, he argued, is long overdue for updates that would make Asheville a major regional destination for the performing arts.
“There have been calls for renovations for decades from the media, guests, city staff and event organizers,” noted Corl. “As you compare our guest amenities to cities like Nashville, Greenville, Durham, Charleston or Greensboro, we’re subpar.”
A 2016 study commissioned by the city pegged the cost of what Corl called a “moderate renovation” to improve acoustics and seating at $36.69 million in 2018 dollars, an estimated $42.47 million in 2021 dollars. But he said the newer, more ambitious plan would go well beyond those changes, completely revamping the way patrons and performers alike experience the venue.
“Other than a new roof, the exterior shell and a few walls here and there, we’re looking at a brand-new facility,” Corl explained as he displayed concepts developed by Nashville-based Earl Swensson Associates. In April, the city signed a roughly $339,000 contract with the firm for initial design work. “Especially compared to the current, is this more representative of a northern gateway that we want to see in Asheville?” he queried.
Rearranging the space
To describe how the plan would reshape the auditorium, Corl asked audience members to imagine themselves sitting 20 feet lower. Because the current configuration does not allow for optimal acoustics, he said, the stage would be dropped down to the level where performers currently load in, effectively raising the ceiling.
The back of the hall would also be brought forward, freeing up space for threefold increases in both concession and restroom capacity (currently there are 11 commodes), as well as additional common areas. Signage would be eliminated from the front of the building for a cleaner appearance, said Corl, and guests would enter through a glass facade with a nested design echoing the look of the original 1940 Asheville Auditorium.
Behind the scenes, new loading facilities and greenrooms would be constructed for visiting artists. Before Corl’s presentation, Greg Duff, the Civic Center Commission’s vice chair, led a backstage tour, pointing out problems that he said discourage performers from booking shows at the facility.
A 12-foot ramp with a 40-degree slope, the main avenue for moving amplifiers and other equipment onto the stage, poses a major inconvenience for technical crews, said Duff. Meanwhile, artists generally enter the dressing room area by crouching through an “infamous short door” that’s about 4 feet tall, he noted, and they “invariably hit their head.”
Although artists do have access to backstage showers — rumored to have been installed by the city at the behest of legendary Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov — the two stalls have no doors between them. “If you shower at the same time, there’s no privacy at all,” said Duff. “So virtually these showers are never used by anyone.”
Improvements aimed at performers, argued Corl, would lead to an increase in both overall bookings and the diversity of those offerings. After the renovations, he predicted, the auditorium would probably book 160 or more dates per year — more than twice its current use rate — and those shows would be more evenly distributed among symphony performances, popular music concerts and other performing arts and entertainment events.
Who’s behind the push?
It’s not entirely clear how much grassroots support the idea has at this point, however.
Those registering for the Jan. 15 presentation were directed to TransformTheWolfe.com. At that time, the site billed itself as belonging to “a community group that believes [renovating] one of Asheville’s most treasured buildings is needed to provide a home for music, arts and entertainment in our community for future generations.” Language on the webpage invited readers to “join our efforts to #TransformTheWolfe,” but no supporters or community partners were listed, and there was no clear indication of the site’s authorship.
Matthieu Rodriguez, marketing and box office coordinator for Harrah’s Cherokee Center — Asheville, said the website was entirely conceived and designed by city employees. Asked if, in that case, it was accurate to describe Transform The Wolfe as a community group, Rodriguez replied: “It’s an informational resource. As an entity of the city of Asheville, we cannot lobby one way or another for a public project. So we have to keep it as nonbiased as possible.”
But Corey Atkins, chair of the Civic Center Commission and vice president of public policy for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, responded differently when Xpress asked about Transform The Wolfe during the Jan. 15 event. “I think it’s an independently owned website,” he said. “It’s really a citizen-led conglomeration of a bunch of different groups that are interested in seeing the transformation.”
Corl, meanwhile, said the city plans to transfer ownership of Transform The Wolfe to a nonprofit group or subcommittee of the Civic Center Commission once community support coalesces behind the renovation plans. He compared the process to the creation of the WNC Nature Center in the 1970s: “They kind of got behind it on a staff level, found a few key members of the community and passed it off. It became its own thing.”
On Jan. 16, the day after these exchanges, the website had been updated to describe itself as “an informational resource” encouraging visitors to “learn more about the project.” At press time, however, an associated Facebook page had shared a post calling Transform The Wolfe a community group; the page also used that language in its “About” section.
Asked about where the city stands in relation to the project, City Manager Debra Campbell wrote in a Jan. 23 email: “You referenced the conceptual design as a proposal. It is important to me that we are clear in all of our communication that what the city now has in hand is a conceptual design and base budget analysis. This valuable information will be used to assist staff as we look for funding opportunities through annual budgets and partnerships.”
As for the website itself, she continued, “We know the city does not have all of the funding for a renovation; we also don’t know what funding opportunities may present themselves to support an iteration of this conceptual design. We are hopeful community partners will step forward. This site is designed so that it could be easily transferred to a partner interested in taking on fundraising efforts.”
Finding the money
Although the Jan. 15 presentation contained a great deal of detail about the benefits of a transformed Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, it included just one slide indicating how the $100 million project might be paid for. The slide listed four potential funding sources: philanthropic donations, corporate sponsorships, Buncombe County’s 6% occupancy tax and local governments.
In June 2018, city staff signed a $29,500 contract with Convergent Nonprofit Solutions to conduct a feasibility study about private donations for the project. On Jan. 15, Corl said Convergent was still “out there knocking on doors.” Speaking with Xpress after the meeting, Corl said he couldn’t provide even a ballpark estimate of how much money a fundraising campaign might generate.
In a Jan. 22 email, however, Corl said that $3 million of a $5.75 million naming rights deal signed in May 2019 with Harrah’s isn’t earmarked for other purposes and could be used for the Thomas Wolfe project. “From the beginning of the conversations with the team at Harrah’s Cherokee,” he noted, “we were clear that our focus was to start creating seed moneys toward a project at the TWA.”
In his Jan. 15 presentation, Corl also cited the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority as a key potential funding source. By law, the agency must allocate 25% of all occupancy tax revenues to support brick-and-mortar projects that generate additional room nights at area hotels; the remaining 75% must be spent on advertising and marketing. “The Tourism Management and Investment Plan process is going to wrap up in a few months,” noted Corl, referencing the TDA’s long-term planning effort for capital spending. “We want to be queued up and ready to be that first transformative project that the TMIP creates.”
According to Buncombe County’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for fiscal year 2018-19, occupancy tax revenues totaled about $25.3 million. Based on that figure, the portion of the money available for capital projects would have been about $6.3 million. Thus, even allowing for annual revenue increases, it would appear that the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium project could consume all available occupancy tax revenue for a good many years to come.
Between 2001 and 2018, the TDA’s Tourism Product Development Fund awarded $44 million to assorted capital projects, the agency reports. That’s less than half the projected cost of the proposed renovation.
And if the anticipated funding sources proved insufficient, local governments might well have to use bonds to pay for the capital project — and perhaps increase taxes to repay that debt. Asheville is still in the process of issuing $74 million in general obligation bonds approved by voters in 2016, for which the city raised property tax rates by 3.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. According to a Jan. 14 city staff report, $23 million of those bonds are expected to be issued in March.
During his Jan. 15 presentation, Corl conceded that the project is ambitious. But thinking big is necessary, he told the people seated in the auditorium, if Asheville is to take its rightful place among the cities of the Southeast. “Asheville is a city with an amazing amount of cultural diversity focused on the arts,” said Corl. “We need a crown jewel facility that represents our community.”