Asheville City Council

The multi-purposed Asheville Civic Center has served the community for nearly 30 years; now, many feel the city’s needs have outgrown the present facility.

Civic leaders hope to use the existing Civic Center site to house a convention center and a refurbished Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, while building a new sports arena consistent with downtown-revitalization efforts. That’s the crux of a report presented at Asheville City Council’s April 4 work session by the Task Force on the Future of the Civic Center.

The task force is now seeking Council’s endorsement to explore funding mechanisms for the project — a dilemma for the cash-strapped city, which must grapple with finding community support for any dedicated funding sources.

While the sports arena might attract significant interest from private developers, funding for the convention and performing arts centers would probably come primarily from public coffers. Recognizing those financial challenges, the task force recommended pursuing the projects individually.

“You can foresee predictable funding mechanisms by breaking them apart,” said City Council member Ed Hay. “The success of one doesn’t necessarily hang on the others.” Hay and Council member Charles Worley also serve on the seven-member task force; they made the presentation, along with fellow task-force member Barbara Halton.

Mayor Leni Sitnick noted that the city will need to take a “hard, cold look at other funding sources.” She maintains that, while the Civic Center serves all of Western North Carolina, the citizens of Asheville have unfairly shouldered the tax burden of keeping it running. She also pointed out that Asheville has many more-pressing needs — such as repairing damaged streets and sidewalks, and creating affordable housing — worrying aloud that, “The needs of the people who live here 365 days a year are not going to be met, and are never going to bet met.”

Sitnick has repeatedly talked of pushing some of the Civic Center’s financial burden onto a previously unexplored resource: tourists.

“Tourism is our largest industry and it’s not being tapped,” she allowed, noting that a one-percent increase in hotel-room taxes would add another million dollars per year to the city’s coffers. She also reported that some North Carolina cities charge up to a 12-percent room tax. “At 3 percent, our room tax is the lowest in the state,” she revealed.

The strongest community support appears to be for renovating Thomas Wolfe Auditorium — which is consistently used for popular events, such as recent concerts by Lyle Lovett and John Prine. The venue, however, does not provide enough floor space to meet the needs of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra and other tenants.

“My personal feeling is that we can generate the support to build a new performing-arts center, and that it be at its present location,” said Hay. “Quite frankly, that’s where performing arts have been located in Asheville for as long as anyone can remember. No one wants to change that.”

Hay reported that Asheville Symphony and Asheville Arts Council board members have offered to study the funding and design of performing-arts centers in cities such as Greenville and Charlotte and report back to the task force.

While it appears there would be little controversy involved in creating a new performing-arts center, the particulars of establishing the convention center and erecting a new sports arena may be more problematic.

According to the task force’s research, a convention center built in the Asheville Civic Center’s current location would give the downtown economy a measurable boost and could complement a revitalized Grove Arcade (already in the works). But Hunter Interests, the consulting firm the task force is using to explore the project, , has determined that private development of an adjacent hotel would be essential to a viable convention center. And there’s the rub.

“Hotel owners don’t want any more rooms to be built,” asserted Council member Barbara Field, reporting that members of the local hotel industry say occupancy rates are already in decline.

Hay countered that, while limited-service hotel rooms already exist in abundance in Asheville, there is a shortage of luxury rooms. Undeterred, Field replied that when the new hotel under construction at Biltmore Estate is completed, that need will be met.

As for building a new arena, most parties agree that something must be done about the current Civic Center — considering such recent public-relations nightmares as blackouts during events and hockey games canceled due to melted ice.

The task force feels the city needs a new arena to be able to compete for larger events. Hay pointed out that Asheville can no longer attract popular sporting events such as wrestling, due to limited seating. And basketball-tournament organizers are deterred by the limited dressing-room facilities. “We’ve seen our last basketball tournament in that arena,” he predicted, referring to the recent NCAA tournament held at the Civic Center.

And the Asheville Smoke, the city’s popular minor-league hockey team, is also suffering. The current rink is neither as long nor as wide as a typical professional rink, and the bleachers are in poor condition. The task force has determined that — considering the Smoke’s popularity, and the prospect of other tenants — a new arena could be successfully built in partnership with private interests. Smoke owner Dan Wilhelm has presented a proposal to the task force, based upon similar arenas in cities such as Clearwater, Fla.

Sitnick noted that the city already funds the arena to the tune of $700,000 to $800,000 a year. “That’s enough,” declared the mayor, suggesting that the task force concentrate on attracting private investors.

Noting the financial unpredictability of minor-league sports, Field worried that the city might be placing too much stock in the Smoke. “I don’t think the team has proven itself yet, and I want us to be patient with it,” she said. “I don’t want an empty new arena that’s a monument to what we did wrong.”

Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger revealed that he, too, questions the need for and viability of a new arena. He voiced concerns about whether building the arena might postpone addressing the existing facility’s pressing problems.

Hay agreed with Cloninger, to an extent. “In a perfect world, you’d build a new arena, move in the tenants, and work on the convention center,” he reasoned.

Worley emphasized, again, that the task force is only asking for permisson to research funding mechanisms, and really nothing more in the way of plans.

As the discussion wound down, Council members who are not on the Task Force on the Future of the Civic Center stopped short of endorsing the proposed projects, but did encourage the committee to more thoroughly explore funding possibilities. The task force will briefly repeat its presentation at Council’s next formal session.

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