Hurry up and wait

“It should be pointed out very clearly that doing nothing is not an option.”

— Asheville City Council member Jan Davis

Asheville Civic Center
Steppin’ out is steppin’ up at the Asheville Civic Center.

Remember the Asheville Civic Center?

Not long ago, it was the subject of yet another city task force. But after poking and prodding the aging and much-studied structure for signs of life, the task force prescribed radical replacement surgery. Either gut it and turn it into a grand performing-arts center, they said, with a new arena constructed off-site, or do an extreme makeover of the current arena and build a new performing-arts hall somewhere else in town. On May 9, the group sent those two alternatives to City Council.

After checking out its wallet, however, Council added a third option: just patching up the old place to coax a few more years out of it. But that required another study to see how much the low-budget would cost now, since a similar assessment done several years ago was no longer valid. Council allocated $20,000 for this purpose.

Nothing much has been heard since then. But in fact, quite a lot has been happening — not least of which is a resurgence of the patient’s vital signs.

Busier than ever

“Reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated,” David Pisha gleefully observes. The Civic Center director has been presiding over “probably the best period ever” in terms of entertainment bookings, he says. Tom Waits just visited, and Lyle Lovett, Drive-By Truckers, Jars of Clay and a bevy of other high-profile acts will be putting in appearances in the next couple of months.

“There’s like five events we’ve got in October alone — I wish we could announce them all. Country and western, gospel, rock — the entire spectrum. It’s just amazing the variety!” Pisha fairly gushes. Indeed, according to Council member Jan Davis, who chaired the most recent Civic Center Task Force, “At this point in the season — which is our slow season — we’ve already gotten booked the equivalent of what we would have in a year. We’re really hot.”

Why the rise in temperature? Pisha says it’s the payoff for having patiently built relationships with promoters. “This is a great market,” he declares. “People love concerts, festivals.” And two steady promoters — Ashley Capps (A.C. Entertainment of Knoxville) and Wilson Howard (Live Nation of Columbia, S.C.) — have really zeroed in on what folks here want. “Then there’s people like Tom Waits that choose Asheville,” Pisha notes proudly. Waits’ whole tour covered only eight cities, and “We were the smallest.”

That’s something the Civic Center Task Force heard repeatedly during its months of taking testimony concerning the facility’s fate. As entertainers scale back touring shows so they can travel lighter, Asheville’s facility can accommodate more of them. Plus, promoters said, the artists just like coming here.

All wet

Another factor in the Civic Center’s recent revival is the lack of professional sports teams based there. “It does free up a lot of dates,” notes Pisha. Teams book blocks of time far in advance, tying up a lot of dates that are now up for grabs. The freer schedule makes booking live music much easier.

But most of those acts perform in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium — the scene of the infamous on-stage water leak during a performance by Alison Krause and Union Station last year. And it was the arena and concourse areas, not Thomas Wolfe, that Council slated for a roof replacement back in May. The Civic Center Commission, however (not to be confused with the task force), has implored City Council to give the auditorium a new roof too.

But in an odd twist of fate — though one perhaps in keeping with the Civic Center’s twisted saga — the $1 million originally allocated for the arena roof has now become embroiled in the city/county feuding over the now-defunct Water Agreement. Earlier this summer, the state’s Local Government Commission, which must approve debt incurred by municipalities, refused to let the city borrow the money for the roof replacement.

“It was caught up in possible … tax-equity [issues] in the Water Agreement,” Davis explains. As part of the continuing water negotiations, Buncombe County has proposed either making a yearly equity payment to the city or taking ownership of — and thus responsibility for — the Civic Center. But with the facility’s future now a bargaining chip of sorts, the Local Government Commission wanted to see some resolution of the issues before giving the city the green light to borrow the money.

Not an option

“It should be pointed out very clearly that doing nothing is not an option,” stresses Davis. “We’ve got to do something. … We can’t just let the roof leak.”

A feasibility study by local architect John Cort, who designed the current Civic Center in the early ’70s, has upped the estimated cost of roof replacement by about one-third, to $1,334,332 — and that’s not including the auditorium. “A lot of the walls have to have a lot of work on them, too,” explains Cathy Ball, the city’s director of transportation and engineering.

Meanwhile, the Civic Center Commission has continued to press the city for action. A July 26 resolution to Council underscores the urgent need to address the structure’s maintenance needs, and a recently released statement issued jointly with the Civic Center staff and the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts (a local nonprofit that’s been heavily involved in the issue) discusses the advantages and disadvantages of all three options now on the table.

It’s enough to make a fellow take refuge in philosophy. And indeed, Max Alexander, the long-suffering chair of the Civic Center Commission, proclaims, “All things are interrelated,” summing up the tangle of complications and events that continues to swirl around the stone-and-concrete structure at 87 Haywood St.


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