If it’s broke…

Community Forum on the Future of the Civic Center

When: Thursday, Sept. 8, Civic Center Banquet Room

Co-sponsors: Asheville Civic Center Commission, League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County, Mountain Xpress

Civic Center Tour (5:30 p.m.): A firsthand look at key problem areas. Open to the public; convene in the lobby.

Weighing the Options (6:30 p.m.): Roundtable with panelists Ed Hay (former City Council member and chair of the former Task Force on the Future of the Civic Center), Bill Fishburne (radio talk-show host on WZNN-AM and senior editor of the Tribune Newspapers) and Chad Nesbitt (local business owner and producer for Charter Channel 10). Public questions and audience polling on potential options. Moderator: Maxine Dalton (industrial organizational psychologist formerly with the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro).

Topics for Discussion:

• What should be done about the current facility, and why?

• Should the Civic Center remain in its current location? If so, should the city simply maintain the facility or fully renovate it?

• Should the current structure be removed and a new Civic Center built elsewhere?

• How would you fund your proposed solution for the Civic Center?

• Should the Civic Center continue to be managed by the city of Asheville? If not, what should the management structure be?

• Should there be changes in the Civic Center’s programming policy?

• Has the Civic Center’s value to the community justified the cost to taxpayers?

Background Information: download the PDF [124 KB] white paper released by the Civic Center Commission back in February.

Civic Center Commission Chair Max Alexander on why we haven’t fixed the aging venue

photos by Roxanne Turpen
Off Center: Asheville Civic Center Commission chair Max Alexander says the need for improvements to the facility is dire.

The Asheville Civic Center was a well-loved entertainment destination for Max and Lillian Alexander when their kids were young. Moving back after some years away from the city, however, the couple had a rude awakening. Seeing the venue’s decrepit condition, “I really was appalled — it was kind of embarassing,” Max recalls. So three years ago, he volunteered to serve on the commission he now heads. But that assignment has turned out to be more frustrating than he perhaps imagined going in. And in preparation for the upcoming public forum on the Civic Center, Alexander spoke frankly about the crumbling structure’s current status — both physical and political. Here are excerpts from that interview:

Mountain Xpress: How would you describe the current state of the Civic Center?

Civic pride?: Several spots on the ceiling and walls of Thomas Wolfe Auditorium suffer from regular water damage, a product of unrepaired leaks in the roof.

Max Alexander: Well, as you know, we put together a white paper that we published in March of this year … [which] outlined, as objectively as we could, what we thought the state of the Civic Center was. And quite frankly, it’s pretty poor. The roof is pretty bad; the visible problems you can see as you go in — the peeling plaster, things like that. Some of the invisible things are a little more scary. … The Thomas Wolfe [Auditorium], of the entire complex, is the [part that’s] in the worst shape. Of course, it’s the oldest too: It opened in 1940 … as the Asheville Municipal Auditorium. My wife used to go to the circus there.

MX: And when you presented your white paper, what happened?

MA: We offered to come over and brief the City Council on the contents of the white paper. … That never took place. [Council member Jan Davis, liaison to the commission] said they couldn’t find time on the agenda. But the City Council did, in fact, vote to allocate $1 million toward the repair of the roof — with the exception of the Thomas Wolfe. … The only explanation I got — and it’s an unofficial explanation — was [they hoped] that something else would take care of the Thomas Wolfe.

MX: Do you have any idea what that is?

MA: … The Hammons hotel group — they were talking about those folks coming in. And that’s the only thing that’s been made public. If I hear one more time that “we’re not at liberty to talk about that,” I’m gonna scream!

MX: Now the Thomas Wolfe roof, of course, is the one that has poured water upon entertainers, right? … And that is the one not being fixed?

MA: Absolutely, which seems a little strange to me.

MX: At one point since you’ve been on the commission, some of the commissioners had identified potential funding to renovate the building, is that correct?

MA: Ah, yes. One of our former commissioners [Sylvia Farrington)] … was a member of the Department of Homeland Security, and she had identified some funding that was available … to help locales to prepare standby or backup emergency facilities. So her proposal … was that we go to the federal government and apply for some of these funds to make the Asheville Civic Center a standby emergency location for the federal agencies in Asheville. … And that would include renovation of the facility; updates in communications facilities [and] the structure itself; a lot of renovation of the supporting infrastructure — restrooms, meeting rooms, other facilities that support the infrastructure. And we also proposed that they try and secure funds to make Asheville a regional training facility, which would allow the placement in the Civic Center of training rooms, audio-visual, things like that. And that went nowhere. … We tried to get … [the city] to apply for those funds. … I personally met with [Council members] Carl Mumpower and Terry Bellamy. My predecessor as chairman met with the mayor and the city manager. … I met with [Buncombe County Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun].

MX: And you detected no interest in this?

MA: There was no follow-up. The only word that we got back was … “We don’t believe that the money’s there.” Now [the commission] had a person that worked for the Department of Homeland Security making phone calls inside the Department of Homeland Security, saying there was money there. … She got so angry that she quit [the commission].

MX: Have you been in communication with any of the state legislative delegation about the Civic Center?

MA: Yes.

MX: Is there any movement there?

MA: Absolutely not; none whatsoever. … Any response we got … [ranged from] “I don’t want to tax people for that building” to “I don’t know anything about the Civic Center.” … How could you live in Asheville and not know about the Civic Center?

MX: What are some of the things you … feel the public doesn’t know about the Civic Center?

MA: … Some of the good things are that there are 350,000 to 356,000 people a year — that we can count — [who] go to the Civic Center, and that’s a pretty sizable number. It’s been reported that on a usage basis … [there are more] nights of performances in the Thomas Wolfe, the arena, and the exhibition hall … than any of the comparative facilities in the area. … The support that the city pays for the Civic Center — i.e. cost versus revenue coming in — is probably less than any other [city] … of comparative size [pays].

On the downside … the Civic Center [is] not at all [Americans with Disabilities Act]-compliant. It’s grandfathered in because of the age of the facility. … Backstage in Thomas Wolfe, we live in fear that [someone] is going to be injured because of the limited space that people have to operate. … The current rigging for the lights is antiquated; the electrical system is antiquated. The access … you go down to the dressing rooms, it’s like going down into a dungeon. You know the movies, when you see the little tiny winding stairs and it’s dark, like going into a hole? That’s exactly what it’s like. … Some of the more serious things are the size of the stage — especially the wings and things like that aren’t large enough for plays and some of the other performances to put on their shows. So some of the shows that are staged here, half their props are sitting on the truck. …

MX: It’s my understanding that there’s a group exploring developing a new performing-arts facility?

MA: That’s my understanding.

MX: Do you know anything about what their plans are?

MA: Only hearsay. What I hear … is that the current plan is to take over … the current Civic Center arena and convert that into a performing-arts center. So that naturally begs the question, what happens to the arena? Here again, it’s hearsay, but hearsay says their suggestion is to build an arena somewhere outside the city.

MX: Any location mentioned that you’ve heard?

MA: … The locations I hear are out by the airport, and some people are talking about on Broadway, near UNCA. … But these are just rumors floating around in the ether.

MX: Why has no decision come forward from City Council about dealing with these questions?

MA: Well, I’ll just quote one of our mayoral candidates who says there’s a lack of leadership. [Council member Joe Dunn] said that — and I think Mr. Dunn was talking about several different topics — but I think one of the topics has to be the Civic Center. Because you go back and you look at interviews of Charlie Worley when he was elected mayor … he said that one of his top priorities was to do something about the Civic Center. And if that was one of his top priorities, and it’s now four years later and nothing has happened, I would say it’s been because of lack of leadership. I’m not accusing him — I’m just drawing the conclusion based on facts. …

MX: What do you think needs to happen to get things moving?

MA: Well, good question. I think one of the first things we need to do is we need to decide … that we want to do something. And quite frankly … I don’t think that impetus has been there on behalf of the current City Council or the city staff. Nor has it been there by anyone else. The only group I’ve seen speak positively about doing something with the Civic Center has been the [Buncombe County Board of Commissioners], strangely enough. …

No. 2 is … if there is a consensus … expressed to do something about the Civic Center, what do you do? … Are we gonna keep it in the same location and redo it? Are we going to move it? Are we gonna split it up? … And then … you need to look at what all these things cost, and then look at the benefits to these various permutations. And you come up with a plan, and then you come up with a funding source. … Should it be funded solely on the backs of the taxpayers of the city of Asheville? Should it be funded by Asheville and Buncombe County? We’re part of Buncombe County, right? Should we fund it regionally and [at the state level]? Or should we — like 99 percent of the rest of North Carolina and probably the U.S. — use our visitors and tourists to fund some of that through a motel tax, through a food tax, through all those kinds of taxes? …

The other source is our revenues. … We increase fees at the Civic Center, perhaps diverting special-event parking fees to the Civic Center, things of that nature. Increase the utilization of the Civic Center, [to boost fee revenues]. A wider variety of concessions at the Civic Center. Things like that. So it’s taxes as well as fees, but it’s revenue sources.

MX: How might you expand concessions? What would you have in mind?

MA: … We met with the Asheville Restaurant Association. One of the ideas … [they] suggested is why don’t we have some of the local restaurants provide venues to purchase food, and the city or the Civic Center could get a commission off that, right? So why don’t we do something like that? Or a larger concession area. Have you ever tried to get a Coke at the Thomas Wolfe? You have to take a ticket. And I’ve spoken to [Civic Center Director David Pisha] and you know, it got nowhere. But if one of your primary drivers for revenue is concessions, then you want to sell as many as you can. …

MX: What’s the purpose of the forum that’s coming up on Sept. 8?

MA: … No. 1: To tell people a little bit about the current Civic Center and what it does. A second thing is — and this is harder — to talk a little bit about the future … but also to give the citizens input about what they think about the future of the Civic Center. Because when I talk to people now, let’s say civic leaders, their input is anecdotal, and I mean it’s fine to govern anecdotally, but I don’t think it’s the best way to govern.

MX: What do you hope the forum will accomplish?

MA: Begin the process of collecting empirical data about how the citizens feel about the future of the Civic Center. …

MX: I have one more question. What was your favorite — or most memorable — experience at the Civic Center?

MA: Quite frankly, the one that means the most to me is taking my son to the circus for the first time. … I took my son down [to the exhibition area] just as the elephants were going by — he must have been 2-1/2 years old — and the elephant came by and stopped right in front of us with the lady on top, right? And so my son … looks at this elephant, and his eyes are like that big: Wow! And the elephant turned around and looked at us.

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