Asheville City Council

The journey toward a decision on the Asheville Civic Center’s future can be likened to a succession of baby steps. And while the ultimate fate of the dilapidated structure remains distant, City Council took another baby step at its May 9 session, formally accepting the Civic Center Task Force’s report.

Council’s stamp of approval isn’t binding, but, after years of discussion, it does move the city one step closer to a resolution.

“This is an opportunity to do something that carries us into the future.”

– Council member Jan Davis

The recommendations, approved on a 6-1 vote with Council member Brownie Newman opposed, give the city a choice of two options. Newman said concern about the potential impact on low-income and middle-class taxpayers in the city made him hesitant to support recommendations that could carry a price tag of up to $140 million.

With the city facing more than $100 million worth of infrastructure needs while having the least-affordable housing in the state and a dearth of jobs that pay a living wage, “We need to look harder at a third option,” said Newman. “That needs to be on the table.” That option is simply refurbishing the center, which would cost an estimated $15 million to $17 million. (Although the task force rejected that idea, City Council is still free to pursue it.)

Council member Carl Mumpower agreed, saying: “We cannot afford to have failure one more time. For us not to look at other options seriously — I don’t think that’s good enough.” In the end, however, Mumpower voted to approve the recommendations anyway.

Council will have a better feel for what to do about the Civic Center after reviewing an economic-impact study, due sometime in June. Council member Jan Davis, who chairs the task force, reiterated that without an industrial base, the city relies heavily on the arts to drive the local economy, and the Civic Center is a vital component of that economic engine.

“This is an opportunity to do something that carries us into the future,” Davis declared, adding that he, too, is reluctant to place the burden on the backs of taxpayers.

The task-force report notes that simply patching up the present facility to keep it going for another five or 10 years would amount to throwing money away and wouldn’t give the community what it wants, noting that extensive public input has echoed this sentiment.

Two for the money

The two options, unveiled publicly a couple of weeks ago, are as follows:

Option 1: Build a new arena off site and then convert the current arena into a new performing-arts complex and media-arts center. Renovate the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium as a flat-floor facility.

Proposed by the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts as the more feasible approach, the complex would also offer improved rehearsal halls, restrooms, a catering kitchen, green rooms and a black-box theater.

The AACPA has joined with another local nonprofit, the HUB Project, in proposing a 55,000 square foot media center carved out of the current Civic Center that could provide a home for such organizations as URTV (the new public-access channel) and the Media Arts Project, as well as the UNCA and A-B Tech media-arts programs. (The estimated cost of this option ranges from $108 million to $128 million.)

The city’s Planning Department has identified 26 potential sites for a new arena. Sites outside downtown would have to contain about 25 acres of land to accommodate the arena and the needed parking. Among the sites that best fit the criteria developed by staff are: the Patton Avenue gateway area; City/County Plaza; Biltmore Square Mall; Brevard Road at Interstates 240 and 40; and the Innsbruck Mall.

Option 2 (aka the Parkside Option): Refurbish the current arena and build a combination performing-arts hall and media center next to City Hall. Convert the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium into a flat-floor space for events and exhibits. (The estimated cost of this option ranges from $131 million to more than $140 million if the new structure also housed a media center.

AACPA President Sidney Powell has said that while her group now endorses Option 1, they would prefer to see a new performing-arts center built if this proved workable. To that end, the nonprofit has pledged $10,000 to help fund a feasibility study of the Parkside site.

The 2.43 acre Parkside site, which the city owns, could accommodate the same amenities envisioned in Option 1, though not all on one level. To support the performing-arts center, a parking deck would be needed, which could also serve city employees and provide public parking for the city and county buildings, the Eagle/Market Street area and Biltmore Avenue, according to the task-force report.

This option is envisioned as a public/private partnership that would also include residential, office and commercial space. The private investment would help fund the public facility, proponents say.

Vice Mayor Holly Jones emphasized that private investment is key to winning her support, especially for the more expensive Parkside option. “I’m happy to accept the report,” she said, “but public financing is going to be the deal-killer for me.”

The report notes that further investigation and professional assistance would be needed to determine how much development is appropriate for the Parkside site and how the public/private partnership would be structured.

Staging should not be a problem with either option, according to the report. Under Option 1, the new arena would be built first. Once it opened, the old arena would be closed and construction of the performing-arts center could begin. Performances in Thomas Wolfe would continue during the construction.

Under Option 2, the arena renovation would be done mainly during the less busy summer months. and though there might be some interruptions or loss of seating, the arena could continue to operate while the work was being done.

Other business

In other news, Council members voted to:

• Schedule May 23 public hearings to consider the voluntary annexation of a .72 acre parcel on Sweeten Creek Road and of four lots, totaling 6.54 acres, on Rockwood Road in south Asheville.

• Authorize the sale of a .115 acre parcel on Dundee Street to Robert Simon for $26,000. The city had originaly acquired the lot, located between South Charlotte Street and Martin Luther King Drive, as part of the East End/Valley Street Community Improvement Program.

• Authorize the mayor to ask the local congressional delegation to lobby for full funding for the federal Community Development Block Grant program. The Bush administration has proposed cutting CDBG funding by 25 percent in fiscal year 2007. The city, which has used the money since 1974 to help pay for affordable housing and various social services, wants total CDBG funding to be restored to $4.3 billion nationwide.

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