“The adaptive reuse of the Civic Center is the only option that will give Asheville a performing-arts center and a new arena … for less than the price of a [stand-alone] performing-arts center.”
— Task force member Sidney Powell on Option 1
On the long and winding road toward resolving the persistent dilemma that is the Asheville Civic Center, the recent series of Civic Center Task Force hearings yielded several generally shared opinions:
• The concerts, shows, exhibits, sporting events and other public gatherings held there should continue, and the venue should remain downtown.
• The current facility — particularly the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium — is inadequate, especially in the loading and staging areas for theater productions and other touring companies, and physical repairs and maintenance have been too long neglected.
• Continuing to ignore the facility’s needs and shortcomings is not an option, in the minds of both the public and task force members.
• To be financially feasible, any viable solution will require multiple funding sources: city, county and state (and possibly federal and private as well).
Based on this rough consensus, the task force will satisfy its mandate by presenting two options to City Council on May 9. They are:
• Option 1: Transform the current arena into a state-of-the-art performance venue, use the remainder of the building as an educational performance-and-technological-arts hub, and build a new arena in or near downtown. (This plan was put forward by the nonprofit Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts.)
• Option 2: Build a new performing-arts center on the south side of City/County Plaza, in conjunction with a mix of housing and business space, and renovate the current Civic Center’s arena. (This plan, also called the “Parkside Option,” is a modified version of a previous task force’s recommendation, outlined in the 2001 Heery Report.)
Although the task force unanimously approved the two options, individual members did express personal preferences. Here’s what three of them had to say about their choices and what they’ve learned along the way.
I have often walked down this street before
“I think that’s a premier address. … A performing-arts center is just about as good as it gets [for City/County Plaza].”
— Council member Jan Davis on Option 2
Council member Jan Davis, who chaired the task force, has been around the block twice now, having served on the earlier task force as well. No surprise, then, that he would favor Option 2. But somewhere along the way, he got stars in his eyes.
“I think that’s a premier address,” Davis says about City/County Plaza. “For me, it’s one of the most significant building sites that we as a city could pick, and I think whatever goes there should have some significance for the whole community. … A performing-arts center is just about as good as it gets. I can get excited thinking about it.”
Davis also believes the proposed multiuse complex could be a magnet for investment. “That could drive the financing,” he says, noting that tax-increment financing, recently approved in North Carolina, could help make the project feasible.
At the same time, he adds, “I’m not going to exclude Option 1,” because one way or another, the city needs a suitable performing-arts facility.
And notwithstanding the budget crunch the city is facing as it prepares for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, “This is not a luxury — this is part of [our] economy,” says Davis. Lacking a substantial industrial base, the community relies largely on the arts as an economic engine, he explains. “Into the future time, we’re going to depend on that … creative class of people. We have to have a performing-arts hall.”
But marshaling at least four Council votes to move forward with either proposal now seems “a much bigger problem than I thought,” he says. “This may be one of the more important things that [the new Council] decides.
And whereas Davis says he felt the 2001 recommendation would be nice, “This time I think it’s really important — for the well-being of the community.”
All the world’s a stage
Task force member Sidney Powell, who chairs the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts, wants Option 1.
“The adaptive reuse of the Civic Center is the only option that will give Asheville a performing-arts center and a new arena,” Powell points out. “It’s also the least expensive. You can get the two new things for less than the price of a [stand-alone] performing-arts center.”
In addition, she notes, the plan would achieve an “integration, or merger, of media arts with performing arts that would [make] Asheville one of approximately a handful of places [worldwide] that combines media, performing arts and techology arts in this way. I think it would be an enormous combination [that would] build on the Asheville brand, using talent and people — things that we already have.”
Her group, says Powell, has spent thousands of volunteer hours studying all aspects of the proposal, and although she didn’t begin as a fan of the adaptive-reuse idea, she got converted somewhere along the way.
“You can take a [place] like the Asheville Civic Center and make it award-winning for half the cost. I would guess that’s something the public is unaware of. And I think the public is unaware that we have looked diligently at stand-alone — and we’re willing to look again at the Parkside [Option]. [But] being part of a mixed-use development entails a whole lot of other problems and issues in addition to extra cost.”
Although Powell says she would support either option chosen by Council, she feels Option 1 would give the city “the most for our money.” Incorporating technical and media-arts seminars with performing arts, she maintains, would create an educational, job-training and cultural facility that would fuel economic development across the region.
“The Civic Center does extremely well for what it is,” Powell concludes. And if people attend events there in spite of its shortcomings, she muses, “Imagine what we could do with a facility that people really want to go to.”
Splitting the difference
Task force member Max Alexander, who also chairs the Civic Center Commission, says he likes both options now headed to Council. “Basically, I feel like the citizens of the region win either way, because either way we end up with a facility that is representative of the region that we live in. In either option, we end up with an arena that is sufficient to support the kind of events that go well in the arena … [and] with a new performing-arts [space].
But Option 1 may have the edge when it comes to financing, Alexander asserts. “Based upon the facts as presented by Sidney [Powell] … she and her organization had identified certain private and public funding.” Private funding has not been identified for the other option, he notes. “The question is, would that [AACPA] funding be available [for Option 2]? But no one ever said that,” he notes.
And funding aside, Alexander tips his hat to the nonprofit’s efforts, saying: “It’s refreshing to see people take such an interest in the city of Asheville and Buncombe County [and] put in so much time and effort. I appreciate that.”
Alexander says he’s also come away with a renewed appreciation for the Civic Center’s importance. Some 350,000 people a year attend events at the facility, he notes — many of which wouldn’t, or couldn’t, be enjoyed here without such a venue.
One key flaw in the whole planning process, he says, is that “there has never been an economic-impact study done. No one’s ever said, ‘So what’s the value of the Civic Center?'” The Civic Center Commission did work on a ministudy with UNCA, he notes, which found that among the advantages of having the Civic Center downtown is the fact that 40 to 60 percent of people attending events come from out of town. “Our contention is, they have to eat somewhere,” says Alexander, pointing to an economic benefit for downtown.
The task force has also requested an economic-impact study, but results are not expected for at least another month — well after the recommendations come before Council.
Tell me more …
Mountain Xpress has produced extensive reporting on the latest round of debates and hearings about the Civic Center’s future. All of the articles are available online:
• “From Hope to Headache,” an annotated Civic Center time line, Aug. 31, 2005.
• “If It’s Broke …,” the results of our online public-opinion poll plus background material on the facility’s physical condition, Oct. 12, 2005.
• “Task Force Juggles Apples and Oranges,” Dec. 14, 2005.
• “What’s the Use? Civic Center Task Force talks with local promoters,” Nov. 30, 2005.
• “Squeezing the Lemons,” Jan. 11, 2006.
• “Picture This: Public glimpses proposals for Civic Center upgrade,” Jan. 25, 2006.
• “Civic Center Options Advanced,” Feb. 8, 2006.
• “Civic Center Task Force Wraps Up Mandate,” March 8, 2006.
• “Civic Center Consensus Wavers,” March 22, 2006.
• “Trading Civic Center Futures,” April 12, 2006.
• “Civic Center Proposals Head to City Hall,” April 26, 2006.