Asheville City Council

After years of haggling, stacks of recommendations and a whole roster of committees and task forces, the Asheville City Council found itself on June 13 facing the specter of yet another Civic Center study.

In response to some Council members’ concern about the cost of the options endorsed by the Civic Center Task Force, city staff now proposed hiring Florida-based consultants Conventional Wisdom for an estimated $10,000 to $20,000 to tackle the matter yet again (see below).

But even as Council members were trying to decide where they stood on that question, Sen. Martin Nesbitt, attending a joint city/county/state powwow on water issues, threw the city a curve ball that skewed sent the entire Civic Center debate sprawling (see “The Better Part of Valor?” elsewhere in this issue).

In the end, the apparently flummoxed Council members opted to table the report proposal till they could get a better handle on what was happening in Raleigh.

Deja vu

The latest wrinkle in this seemingly insoluble problem traces back to the May 9 Council meeting, when the Civic Center Task Force — after months of wrangling and digesting information from previous studies — presented two options for dealing with the issue (see “One Step Closer,” May 17 Xpress). But the high price of those options, both of which are projected to cost more than $100 million, left Council sharply divided.

During those deliberations, Council members Carl Mumpower and Brownie Newman both favored a third option: fixing and perhaps upgrading the existing structure as a cheaper way to give the city a functional facility. And on June 13, staff came back with its recommendation for the latest study.

Ian Vingoe, who co-wrote a 2001 Civic Center report while working for Heery International, now works for Conventional Wisdom. This time around, Vingoe proposes analyzing the Civic Center in three tiers, with corresponding price estimates. Each stage would build on the last: making repairs to bring the structure up to operating standards, improving its functional performance, and increasing its marketability.

To anyone who’s followed this long-running drama, this may sound all too familiar. But Council member Jan Davis, who chairs the current task force, maintains that such reports can have a dramatically short life span, subject to such variables as major jumps in energy and construction costs. And what’s been missing up till now, he notes, is a substantive decision by City Council while a given report was still relevant.

Before even considering the staff proposal, however, Council members heard the results of still another study — an economic-impact analysis commissioned by the city earlier this year at the task force’s request. This one, conducted by Inhyuck “Steve” Ha, an economist at Western Carolina University, pegs the Civic Center’s regional clout at about $22 million a year. Despite the facility’s roughly $400,000 annual deficit, it has a dramatic effect on the city, the county and the surrounding region, Ha told Council.

But he emphasized that the report is more vague than he would like, due to time and data constraints, and recommended having a 12-month survey done that would track Civic Center patrons and the money they spend in more detail.

After accepting Ha’s report, Council moved on to consider the proposed Conventional Wisdom study. But the debate was largely dominated by the previous day’s surprise, compliments of Nesbitt.

Back to square one

Throughout the city’s decadeslong attempts to reach agreement on a Civic Center plan, Council members have also considered possible funding options. Although they’ve shied away from the idea of a sales-tax increase, there has been support for other measures, such as a hotel-tax increase. But this would require permission from state legislators, and despite formal requests by the city, it has not been forthcoming.

At the June 12 water meeting, however, Nesbitt said he’d like to explore a more regional approach, including the option of building a large facility outside the city limits, perhaps near the Asheville Regional Airport. State funding, said Nesbitt, could help pay for a feasibility study.

The idea of an arena outside of town has been discussed before, but despite Council’s repeated failure to zero in on a concrete future for the facility, the clear consensus recently has been to keep the Civic Center in the city.

Davis, the current Council member who’s been most deeply involved with the issue, told Xpress that all the Civic Center studies, as well as an analysis of the experiences of cities with out-of-town venues, have supported keeping Asheville’s facility downtown.

But Nesbitt’s message was clear, Davis said. And even 24 hours later, Council members seemed perplexed, distressed and unsure how to move forward.

“We were trumped by our state legislators,” said Mumpower, jettisoning his previous support for the proposed new study until “the dust clears from the curve ball.”

For his part, Davis said the new development had left him feeling dejected. “You feel like all this stuff you’ve been working for, someone reached in and said, ‘You’re not going to have it.'” And even if a new facility were built outside of town, the city would still have to deal with the old Civic Center, he noted.

Meanwhile, Council member Robin Cape questioned the need for another study immediately after the task force had done its work, saying, “We’ve taken all the time of that task force and decided to ignore it.”

Cape added that she wants to see what the prospects are for support from the county and the state. “Let’s see how our regional partners want to play with us.”

Only Newman continued to champion moving forward. The Civic Center study, he maintained, would complement the information gathered by the task force, offering additional possibilities. “To me, it’s just keeping an affordable option on the table,” Newman explained.

In the end, however, Council members decided to table the issue for 60 days while they try to take the pulse in Raleigh.

“I thought, man, I can’t believe I’m going to go in there and ask for another study for the Civic Center,” Davis confessed. “But frankly, we’re probably going to have to do it to get to the next place.”

Movin’ out

Another agenda item offered further evidence that in city/county politics, water will seep into every crack and crevice.

Council voted 6-1 to exercise the full regulatory powers allowed under state law within the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, a roughly one-mile-deep ring around the city limits.

Regulating the ETJ enables cities to prep outlying areas for future annexation by ensuring that development there conforms to city codes. In the past, Asheville has limited its efforts to applying zoning and subdivision rules, but state law allows cities to do more. And amid disputes with the county over water and annexation issues (which prompted Asheville to nix a proposed joint-planning area with the county in March), the city has decided to become more proactive in overseeing the ETJ.

Effective July 1, the city will implement floodplain and storm-water management, take over street-address services, and begin enforcing its erosion-control ordinance, minimum housing code and state building codes.

The lone opposition to the move came from Mumpower, who argued that it would imply the county’s housing standards are too low.

“I’m assuming the only reason we would step in and exert control is because we think we can up the standard,” he said, calling the notion “insulting and presumptuous.” People in the ETJ, he noted, are subject to city ordinances but cannot vote in city elections.

Bellamy and Cape disagreed, saying the process is designed to eliminate confusion and inconsistencies in the system.

The devil and Ms. Jones

Council member Holly Jones supported the change, but she wanted to know if the city could also start enforcing its “nuisance” ordinances, which deal with things like noise and junk cars. Jones, however, was specifically referring to a long-running battle between the Fantasy World adult bookstore and the adjacent Maple Ridge Baptist Church in Candler. Under a 1999 county law, adult establishments are not allowed within 1,000 feet of a church. Fantasy World, already there when the law was passed, didn’t satisfy that condition, and the business was given until 2002 to move. It stayed put, however, and the county has yet to enforce the ordinance. Meanwhile, the area fell into Asheville’s ETJ in 2001, clouding the issue of who has jurisdiction.

Now, however, Jones wanted to take up the fight. “The city will do something about that adult bookstore next to that church if they give us that authority,” she said. “I’m tired of hearing about it; I’m tired of talking about it. I know the Baptists are tired of it.”

But City Attorney Bob Oast explained later that ETJ enforcement powers are typically limited to land-use issues, not nuisance ordinances. Oast said he’s exploring whether the store violates city zoning, but he hasn’t come up with anything viable yet.

A road to nowhere?

The stack of documents making recommendations about the Asheville Civic Center stands high and deep. Here’s a partial list of the studies, economic-impact assessments and proposals that have come before City Council in recent years (note: Not all of these were city-funded):

1998: Hunter Interests report — recommends a new convention space and hotel.

2000: Highland Group report — commissioned by the Tourism Development Authority to refute the Hunter Interests report.

2000: A prior Civic Center Task Force recommends building a performing-arts center at the present site and an arena at a new location.

2001: Heery report — the largest, most comprehensive study to date, it gives a menu of options.

2002: PBC&L study — local architects ponder refurbishing the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium and building an adjacent performing-arts venue.

2005: Civic Center Commission white paper — analyzes and makes recommendations on repairing the Civic Center.

July 2005: A report commissioned by the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts looks at the potential regional market for such a facility.

May 2006: The current Civic Center Task Force brings two recommendations to Council.

June 2006: economic-impact report by WCU economist, who recommends ordering another, more detailed study.

June 2006: Sen. Martin Nesbitt suggests that Asheville consider a facility outside the city limits.

June 2006: Responding to Council concerns about the high cost of the options endorsed by the task force, city staff recommends hiring consultants Conventional Wisdom to do yet another study. Council tables the issue for 60 days.

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