Here’s one reality: The aging Asheville Civic Center needs $10 million worth of maintenance and repairs just to keep ticking along for a few more years. Here’s another: Like many local governments across the state, the city of Asheville is facing a multimillion-dollar budget crunch.
So where does the dream of a $115 million Civic Center upgrade fit in?
At Council’s March 19 work session, Council member Holly Jones likened the pricey proposal to a fine Lexus automobile; Council, however, can only afford a Volkswagen Jetta. The full dream would include: a renovated Civic Center, a brand new state-of-the-art performing-arts center, refitting the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium to serve as a ballroom/banquet hall, new offices for Civic Center staff and sports teams in the former banquet room, a modest convention/meeting facility, and a new entrance on Lexington Avenue.
Council member Carl Mumpower, who once chaired the city’s Civic Center Commission, said Council members will have to decide within the next month or so “whether this is a vision or an illusion.”
“There is no ‘do-nothing’ option,'” declared consultant Jerry McClendon of the Atlanta-based firm Heery International, which prepared the proposal. He pointed out that simply maintaining the Civic Center and auditorium as is would cost $10 million … and the city would end up with a facility whose “functional disabilities” (such as a leaky roof and inadequate restroom facilities) would make it increasingly hard to market. Phase 1 construction for Heery’s $115 million proposal would cost about $54 million, said McClendon.
Private fund-raising efforts could provide about $25 million, argued former Council member Ed Hay (who chairs the city’s Future of the Civic Center Task Force). Holly Jones seemed skeptical. She noted how hard it had been (in her role as director of the local YWCA) to raise a much smaller amount to expand that facility, and also mentioned the difficulties the Chamber of Commerce is facing in trying to raise $5 million for its new building). But Hay assured Council that potential donors such as the Suzanne Marcus Foundation (which paid for the Heery feasibility study) are poised and ready to pitch in.
The rest of the money, McClendon suggested, could be provided by a bond issue to be repaid by one or more revenue sources: a 1-cent countywide food-and-beverage tax; a 1-cent room tax; a 1-cent city sales tax; or a portion of a countywide 1-cent sales tax.
Council members didn’t jump on any of these ideas, though Hay was pushing the food-and-beverage tax.
Mayor Charles Worley, meanwhile, mentioned that all these tax options would require state legislation. Given the state budget crisis — and the time required to build community support for the Civic Center project — Worley suggested that Council members take the next month or so to weigh the idea. Even if they approved all or part of the Heery proposal, he noted, it would take at least a year to determine which funding source to use and how much private funding could be secured.
Council member Jim Ellis observed that the room tax could fund at least the first two phases of the project, including renovating the Civic Center’s lower level and building a new performing-arts center on the approximate site of the CP&L substation. Ellis also asked the Heery representatives to come up with sexier names for those phases than “CP 1″ and “CP 2.”
Project Director Ian Vengoe of Heery suggested using the acronym HEART (history, entertainment, arts, recreation triangle). A revamped Civic Center/arts complex, he argued, would become the “heart” of the downtown district.
Sexy names aside, Council member Joe Dunn questioned the logic of using the existing Civic Center site vs. building somewhere else — such as the River District, UNCA or near the WNC Agricultural Center.
The reason, said Vengoe, is money. Heery estimates that using the existing Civic Center site would cost 60 percent less than building on a new site (and that’s assuming that land with adequate water, sewer, road access and other infrastructure were practically given to the city).
Dunn’s response was an unconvinced “hmm.” Praising Heery’s work and the efforts of the task force (which recommends moving forward with CP1 and CP2, at an estimated cost of about $72 million), he observed, “It’s a beautiful presentation, but we’re going to have to pay for it.”
Vengoe replied that even doing only minimal repairs and maintenance would still cost the city $10 million and would amount to mere “Band-Aiding.”
Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy seemed to agree. “We have to do something,” she argued, noting that the proposal embodies such smart-growth principles as reusing existing buildings and being pedestrian-friendly.
Bellamy also remarked that one way to assess and then boost community support for the project is to publicize the explanations encapsulated in the frequently asked questions that Heery had presented to Council (for example, Why keep the arena, performing-arts and meeting functions together? To save operational and labor costs, for one, and because “there’s a synergy in keeping the three together,” according to Vengoe).
Other questions addressed such issues as the size of the proposed arena (5,000 to 6,000 seats) and the reasons for keeping the facilities downtown (I-240 access, for one).
“We do have a lot of work to do before we make an informed decision,” concluded Worley.
Air for sale
What’s the space above a downtown parking lot worth?
About $67,500, city staff estimated.
That’s the amount Robert Camille Jr., Peter Y. Alberice and Robert M. Todd have bid for the “air rights” over a city-owned parking lot on South Lexington. The three investors want to build an eight-story office/residential structure over the lot, part of a larger parcel (9-13 Biltmore Ave., which the city is selling to the Asheville Area Arts Council. The parcel includes both the Arts Council offices and the former site of the club Be Here Now, and the deal would not interfere with the Arts Council’s use of the parking lot, city staff reported.
But first, Council has to advertise for upset bids. Council members informally gave their consent, and Mayor Worley joked, “Do we have any more land we can sell air rights over?”
Council members agreed to set public hearings for April 9 on two proposed amendments to the Unified Development Ordinance. The first would raise the threshold for staff-level review of residential development projects from seven to 50 units. The second amendment would expand the new “flexible development standards” to include such matters as allowing alternative landscaping in new developments.