What’s in a name? In the case of Asheville’s Civic Center, about $4.8 million — the approximate difference between bids by U.S. Cellular and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for naming rights to the downtown venue.
During its meeting on Tuesday, May 28, Asheville City Council will decide whether the substantially higher bid from the Eastern Band, which owns two Harrah’s casinos in Cherokee and Murphy, is enough to change the venue’s name from the U.S. Cellular Center to Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville. The choice will determine the logo that will grace the Civic Center’s signs, pole banners, receipts and event advertising for the next several years once the current agreement with U.S. Cellular expires on Tuesday, Dec. 31.
According to a staff presentation released before the meeting, U.S. Cellular has offered a maximum of $922,641 for a three-year agreement and potential two-year extension. Staff members note that a new contract with U.S. Cellular would allow the existing brand, which has represented the building for the past nine years, to continue growing in recognition.
The bid falls short, however, of the $500,000 per year target set by city officials. Asheville would thus need to locate other sources of funding for improvements such as video displays meant to attract high-profile sporting events similar to the collegiate Southern Conference Basketball Championships and professional tennis’s Fed Cup. The revenue also would not fully cover much-needed renovations at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, which is part of the Civic Center complex. Despite these drawbacks, the Civic Center Commission voted April 2 in favor of continuation with U.S. Cellular.
To change the Civic Center branding to Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville, the Eastern Band offered a five-year agreement contract with a five-year mutually agreeable extension valued at up to $5,750,000 — more than six times the U.S. Cellular bid. The bid includes $500,000 for the purchase and installation of video displays and $250,000 toward other “fan friendly” improvements, but would require the Civic Center garage to be renamed to match the multipurpose venue.
While the Harrah’s bid financially soars above the U.S. Cellular offer, the prospect of attaching a gambling brand to Asheville has been met with resistance from some members of the community, including Downtown Commission members Kimberly Hunter and Brian Haynes, who also sits on City Council. Haynes voted against the Harrah’s proposal during a special commission meeting on May 23, while Hunter spoke against it but left before the formal vote.
“I lived in Vegas for three years, and the gaming industry actually contributes negatively to social determinants of health, for children specifically and the elderly. They’re both at high risk,” Hunter said. “I hear the monetary piece, but holistically, there are negative impacts from choosing too quickly.”
After hearing a presentation on the issue from Chris Corl, general manager of the U.S. Cellular Center, members of the Downtown Commission ultimately voted to recommend the Harrah’s Cherokee bid.
“Every single person that I’ve talked to has had basically the same answer, and that is ‘What is the big deal? It’s the Civic Center,’” said Downtown Commission member Steven Lee Johnson. “I’m tired of seeing Thomas Wolfe Auditorium look like a third-class facility. I mean, the paint is peeling off it. If the city passes up this opportunity, I don’t think there’s gonna be another group that’s gonna see the financial interest in it.”
In other business
City Manager Debra Campbell will bring her plan for the fiscal year 2019-20 operating budget before Council members to consider during a public hearing. The hearing is also an opportunity for members of the public to provide input on the budget proposal. Council’s vote to formally adopt the budget takes place on Tuesday, June 11.
In another public hearing, Council will consider the conditional zoning of 99999 Verde Vista Circle, which would expand an existing East Asheville apartment development by allowing the construction of an additional 56-unit, multifamily residential building.
The meeting will also include presentations regarding the Asheville Regional Airport and the In Real Life After-School Program from the Asheville City Schools Foundation. A Manager’s Report is listed on the agenda, but no documents or further details were available as of press time.
Council’s consent agenda for the meeting contains 11 items, which will be approved as a package unless singled out for separate discussion. Highlights include resolutions to:
- Amend the Economic Development Agreement and Purchase Option Agreement with White Labs, a company that specializes in yeast fermentation for the brewing and winemaking industries. The company hopes to extend its five-year lease agreement with the city, which authorized White Labs to open a facility on city-owned property located at 172 and 174 S. Charlotte Street, and then purchase both properties from the city in 2020.
- Enter into a $278,000 contract with IBI Group to perform a study that will determine the costs for relocating the City’s Operations and Maintenance Centers, currently at 171 and 179 S. Charlotte Street. The city is considering the properties for potential affordable and mixed income housing developments.
- Execute a three-year agreement with Bio-Nomic Services to remove and dispose of residual material from the city’s water treatment plants — also known as “sludge” — through application on agricultural land. The contract is estimated to cost $257,180, plus a 15% contingency of $38,577, for a total project budget of $295,757.
Asheville City Council meets at 5 p.m. in council chambers on the second floor of City Hall at 70 Court Plaza, Asheville. The full meeting agenda and supporting documents can be found here.