Civic Center consensus wavers

Spending less than $15 million would be “not even a Band-Aid — it would be washing a wound with water.”

— Civic Center Commission Chair Max Alexander

The forward momentum that had taken the Asheville Civic Center Task Force to congenial agreement on two options for the aging facility at its February meeting slowed noticeably during a three-hour March 15 session. Instead of merely finalizing their recommendations to City Council, task force members found themselves focusing mostly on two other options — and catching an earful in the process from some of the more than 60 people in attendance.

It was supposed to be a straightforward evening. A team of city staffers had collected additional siting and cost data on the two choices the task force had already decided on. One calls for building a new performing-arts center in the footprint of the existing arena and constructing a new arena at a separate site, as recommended by the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts. The other plan, outlined in the city-funded 2001 Heery Report, would refurbish the existing arena and build a new performing-arts facility on the same site.

For the first option — relocating the arena — staff members presented a list of 26 potential sites either downtown or slightly farther afield that have sufficient room for parking. Grouping the sites by optimal characteristics (such as whether they’re within the city limits, provide good traffic access and are fairly level) whittled the list down to six. Three of them are downtown: the current site, the Patton Avenue “gateway” (an area bounded by Haywood Street, Patton Avenue and a portion of South French Broad Avenue), and a “parkside” district on the south side of City/County Plaza. The other three involve acreage at the Innsbruck Mall, Biltmore Square Mall and the intersection of Brevard Road with Interstates 40 and 240.

“People want the arena downtown,” declared Civic Center Commission Chair (and task force member) Max Alexander, citing both anecdotal and empirical data. Another task force member, former Mayor Charles Worley, added that cities that had moved their arenas outside the urban core are now bringing them back. And several members of the public also indicated their preference for a downtown facility.

Discussion quickly focused on the “parkside” site. Adjacent to both City Hall and the Buncombe County Courthouse, it would also tie into the Eagle Street historic district.

“We recognize that’s probably the premier piece of property in the city right now,” said Council member Jan Davis, who chairs the task force. The city, he noted, already owns the parcel, adding that the Grove Park Inn had targeted the location as “Site B” for a proposed downtown development that was later abandoned.

Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau Director Kelly Miller, who was sitting in for task force member Ron Storto, also liked the idea. “If you did put a new performing-arts center down there, it would create a nice cultural-arts corridor,” he observed, noting the proximity to the Asheville Art Museum, Diana Wortham Theatre and other venues.

Task force member Sidney Powell, who chairs the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts, promptly reminded her colleagues that constructing a new arena would be much cheaper than building a performing-arts center from the ground up, according to studies funded by her group. “Around $30 million less,” she emphasized.

After more discussion of costs, Davis observed that with City Council now considering the best uses for current city property, a performing-arts center would be far more valuable in that location than an arena.

At that point, Mayor Terry Bellamy, who also serves on the task force, threw a curve ball: As the city struggles with a $2 million plus deficit, she could not support taking any private property off the tax rolls. “I think someone said it best when they said we should grow up and not out,” said Bellamy, adding, “I am sincerely open to hearing more about a performing-arts center right next to our new park,” which she called “a gift from our community.” Her remarks drew applause from the audience.

That cleared the way for Davis to turn the group’s attention to a staff report highlighting both prior and current cost estimates for the options under consideration. But this discussion, too, produced no consensus among task force members.

And though the task force had originally been charged with giving Council two recommended options to consider, early feedback from individual Council members led Davis to ask for a third option that would be cheaper than the full-scale plans the task force preferred. Bellamy suggested forwarding “small, medium and large” options to Council. This led to a discussion of the Heery Report’s “Band-Aid” recommendation: simply refurbishing the arena. Priced at $10 million to $12 million five years ago, the project would probably cost closer to $15 million today, according to city staff. And spending less than that, Alexander maintained, would be “not even a Band-Aid — it would be washing a wound with water.”

With no resolution in sight, Davis promised to include the idea of building the performing-arts center (rather than an arena) next to City/County Plaza in the next meeting’s agenda and to generate a third, lower-cost option. And on that note, the March 15 meeting was adjourned. The task force is expected to reconvene in the next several weeks to resume discussion.

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