Asheville City Council

Asheville City Council meetings haven’t generally gotten high marks for their entertainment value. If you come expecting an evening of song and dance, you’ll probably be disappointed when you find it’s mostly talk, talk, talk. But if the July 16 work session was any indication, the tide may be shifting in favor of increased visual appeal: PowerPoint presentations thick with charts, graphs and snappy graphics. Three such computer slide shows figured in the two-hour-and-30-minute session, including one used by the mayor himself.

After Charles Worley had finished laying out his position on the Asheville Civic Center in a presentation complete with bulleted lists and aerial photos, Council member Joe Dunn joked with the mayor.

“Are we all going to have to use PowerPoint now?” queried Dunn.

“Did I raise the bar?” responded Worley, to a chorus of chuckles from Council members.

Are Asheville’s buildings too safe?

Beating Worley to the punch in using visual aids at the meeting was the city’s Building Inspection Department, on hand to deliver good news about the safety of Asheville’s buildings. A report by the Insurance Services Office ranks Asheville no. 1 in North Carolina.

Building Safety Director Terry Summey outlined the criteria used in figuring the rankings, which cover only new construction; building codes, training and hiring of qualified experts, and other safety measures are among the factors considered. Asheville’s ranking was displayed at the bottom of the screen, with a tag line declaring, “Still the best in the State!!!”

On a scale of 1 to 10, Asheville scored a 2.

“I’m still trying to get a 1,” Summey told Council. “I’m actually appealing that 2.”

Asheville has owned the best rating in the state since 1997, he noted.

But not everyone on Council seemed ready to pop the champagne.

Observing that other cities in the state are doing just fine with ratings of 4 or 5, Dunn wondered whether such a lofty goal didn’t translate into overkill, asking, “Would it not seem to raise a red flag that we have too much regulation?”

Summey responded that the score reflects a greater level of safety in case of fires or other disasters. “Buildings that are built to code are better buildings to be in,” he said simply. Summey added that, though insurance companies don’t generally use these ratings yet, they may do so in the future. He explained later that the ISO is part of an effort to get buildings across the country built to more consistent standards, in order to help curb rising insurance rates.

Council still stymied by Civic Center

After more than five years, what’s another six months? The long-running Civic Center conundrum has refused to die, and despite the lack of funding or even any sign of pending consensus on Council, the discussion at the July 16 work session seemed to indicate that a decision on what to do about the aging, ailing structure could be made by the end of the year … maybe.

The problem: Besides being sharply divided on the question, Council seems to be equally stumped about how to find common ground.

Consider these statements by Council members:

Jim Ellis: “I think what I’m guessing is … it’s going to be difficult for us to make a decision.”

Joe Dunn: “I don’t think we have consensus by a long shot.”

Brian Peterson: “We’ve got to reach consensus, and I’m not contributing to that because I don’t like anything on the table.”

And the summation by Carl Mumpower: “Basically, we’re saying we’re stuck.”

Compounding the problem is the city’s budget crisis. Renovating the Civic Center has been projected to cost anywhere from $76 million to $115 million, depending on the scope of the project, and finding the money will be no small feat. “How are we going to pay for it?” asked Peterson. “We have no funding to pay for this.”

“And no prospects,” added Worley.

Starting the ball rolling, Worley fired up his PowerPoint presentation showing why he believes the Civic Center should stay downtown. Using aerial photos, he addressed concerns such as access and parking. “There are more ways in and out of downtown than any interstate exit can provide!!!” proclaimed the mayor’s presentation.

Back in March, consultants Heery International delivered their recommendations on the Civic Center to Council. But a busy summer schedule had prevented Council members from tackling the issue head-on until now.

The Asheville-based firm of Pearce, Brinkley, Cease and Lee also presented a report to Council, proposing a renovation projected to cost “$80 million, when you compare apples to oranges.” The firm offered its assessment free of charge, hoping to get a piece of the action. “We specialize in performance centers, and we want to do the work,” explained Project Architect Richard Fort.

Potential design options for the facility vary widely, ranging from sticking with a multipurpose, downtown faciity to building a separate sports complex and a convention center at outlying sites. And funding, it’s been suggested, could come from the private sector and community arts groups as well as the state, tourists and taxpayers.

“I keep waiting for [businesses and other groups] to come forward together, and they keep looking to the city,” observed Council member Holly Jones.

Other funding suggestions include a 1-cent tax on hotel rooms or food-and-beverage tabs. Such a move would require the approval of the state legislature.

Contacted after the meeting, Peterson said he’d like to explore building a sports complex in conjunction with UNCA, which could help in securing state funding. But he added that there are probably seven different opinions on Council right now, and he was skeptical about the prospects for reaching agreement. “Six months from now, we’re going to be in the same spot,” predicted Peterson.

Former Council member Ed Hay, the chair of the Future of the Civic Center Task Force, told Council flatly, “We’ve got to have a plan of action we can move forward on.”

With several studies already in the can, attention turned to whether to find the money first, adopt a plan first, or conduct more studies on what the community needs.

Adopting a plan with no money in hand is putting the cart before the horse, argued Dunn, asserting, “We should figure out what we can spend and go backward from there.”

Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy suggested conducting a market-feasibility study, as businesses do, to determine what sort of complex the community can realistically support. She also brought up the idea of a referendum. “Find out what the community wants and do the will of the people,” she urged.

But Worley said he would have a hard time supporting a referendum, maintaining that it just isn’t feasible to try to convey to the public the extensive amount of information collected over the past six years. Besides, he argued: “We are a representative form of government. It is our job to do, and we need to have the will to do it.”

Worley also addressed funding options, including private-sector money and support from the arts community. But, he noted, any decision Council makes must be realistic about the budget.

“Do Asheville taxpayers have the responsibility to supply entertainment for Western North Carolina?” wondered Dunn.

Ellis, meanwhile, took a different view of Civic Center funding. “I look at it as an investment to make things happen. It makes money for the city,” he said, adding that attendance numbers at the Civic Center have increased in recent years.

“Those numbers are skewed,” countered Dunn. “They are not going to go up, I bet you.”

In order to keep the Civic Center discussion on track, Council plans to discuss the options at least once a month during work sessions.

“We have to get to the point where we can make a decision,” Worley said.

Whatever that decision proves to be, and however the funding is secured, Council members do seem to be in agreement on one point: This ambitious undertaking cannot happen without help from the General Assembly. Hence the need to reach some sort of agreement by December: The opportunity to ask for this kind of money doesn’t come around every day. If Council can’t approach the legislature with some semblance of consensus at the beginning of 2003, it could be two more years before they get another chance.

Come one, come all

A community meeting will be held Tuesday, July 30 at the East Asheville Community Center, 906 Tunnel Road. City staff will answer questions on any topic from 6:30 to 7 p.m., followed by the community meeting.


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