From Hope to headache

June 23, 1974, was supposed to be a day of civic pride and an auspicious beginning for the just-completed Asheville Civic Center. After years of rancorous debate and political foot-dragging, the last brick was finally in place, the paint was dry — and the house was packed for the much-anticipated first show. The headliner was none other than legendary entertainer Bob Hope, who, as some remember it, greeted his audience with this:

“Congratulations — you’ve built yourselves a nice garage.”

Dissing the Civic Center, it seems, is nothing new. And some might argue that it’s all been downhill from there. On the other hand, the facility has hosted hundreds of successful shows over the years enjoyed by thousands of satisfied customers. But however one looks at it, the Civic Center’s history is inextricably bound up with that of the city it serves, and in retrospect, the building’s fortresslike design seems all too fitting, given the barrage of slings and arrows it’s had to endure over the years.

Thirty-one years later, Hope is dead, and the building he helped christen is seriously ailing. But what to do with the Civic Center — demolish it, renovate it, build a new one near the airport, or wash our hands of it and let the private sector step in — remains the question of the day. If the Civic Center’s future is unknown, however, the structure’s troubled past is amply documented. Here’s a brief chronology of key events in the building’s lengthy life span:

1902: The Asheville Auditorium, the city’s first, opens its doors at the intersection of Haywood and Flint streets. The privately owned facility was built by popular subscription.

1903: The auditorium burns to the ground after a performance of Sergeant Kitty.

1904: The auditorium is rebuilt.

1909: The city assumes ownership of the auditorium. Over the next 20 years, its stage will welcome the likes of Lionel and John Barrymore, Sarah Bernhardt, Helen Hayes, Harry Houdini, Al Jolson and Will Rogers.

June 1931: The Asheville City Council issues a report calling the auditorium a “serious menace” and a “dangerous trap” because of fire hazards; Council votes to condemn the building.

January 1940: The Municipal Auditorium opens. Partly funded by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, the new building is supposed to give a boost to both the local economy and city residents’ spirits during those dark days. By most accounts, however, the new facility is a disaster. With a flat floor and wooden chairs, the building forces performers to compete with the din created by the furnishings and hissing radiators, while patrons crane their necks to see the stage.

1967: Voters pass a $5.3 million bond issue to fund construction of a scaled-back package including a civic-arts center and a convention/events arena. City leaders debate various aspects of both projects.

1969: With construction costs rising and ground not yet broken on either project, city leaders decide to renovate the existing auditorium and piggyback an arena onto it.

May 27, 1970: Voters reject — by less than 100 votes — a $2 million supplementary bond issue designed to cover the increased costs.

May 30, 1970: Despite the failure of the bond referendum, Mayor Wayne Montgomery vows that the Civic Center will be built, albeit without seats or air conditioning.

Fall, 1970: Westgate Shopping Center owner George Coggins files a lawsuit to block the merger of the arts center and arena projects. (Coggins had been unsuccessfully lobbying city leaders to locate the Civic Center on property he owned near Westgate.) The case makes its way to the state Supreme Court, where Coggins loses.

1971: The contractor for the project, Ranger Construction Co., files a $300,000 claim against the city.

1971: An official policy statement signed by Mayor Richard Wood and the entire City Council states: “The Civic Center has had a long and troubled history. The debate over its contents and location has been extensive. Unfortunately, this delay and debate has been a very negative influence on the civic pride and cooperative spirit of our community.”

Dec. 14, 1971: One month after Rev. Billy Graham — who has not held a crusade in Asheville in 20 years because of the lack of a large arena — promises to hold a crusade in the Civic Center, voters pass a $3 million Civic Center bond by a margin of four to one.

1974: The auditorium is redesigned and named after local literary icon Thomas Wolfe.

June 23, 1974: The new Civic Center opens its doors with Hope and fanfare.

July 22-24, 1975: Elvis plays three nights at the Asheville Civic Center. Tickets are scalped for $50.

July 24, 1975: Shortly before midnight, Elvis leaves the building.

1996: Concerned about the impact of the planned Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, the Asheville City Council appoints the Task Force on the Future of the Civic Center, charged with making recommendations on the best use of the existing facility.

1997: City Council hires Hunter Interests, a Maryland consulting firm, to conduct a market and economic-feasibility study.

1997: Hunter Interests issues its first report (an overview of the market for the conference center that would be part of an expanded Civic Center). A revamped convention-and-exhibition facility would significantly enhance the city’s ability to attract conventions and trade shows, the report predicts.

1999: Hunter Interests issues its final report, which recommends keeping the arena function downtown and building a new facility, rather than renovating the existing one. The report adds that although there is clearly strong market support for the Civic Center, it’s not clear whether there is sufficient support from city residents and the local hospitality industry to sustain the necessary funding mechanisms.

June 1999: In response, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority commissions the Highland Group of Atlanta to once again research the potential demand for a convention/conference center.

September 1999: Highland Group issues its report, which declares the Civic Center obsolete as a multi-use facility. Adequate convention facilities, the report concludes, already exist in the area.

2000: City Council commissions Heery International to conduct an architectural feasibility study to determine the city’s options for the Civic Center and their respective costs.

May 2002: Heery report recommends renovating the arena portion of the existing Civic Center and building a new performing-arts center on the back side of the current structure, facing Lexington Avenue. Renovating the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium isn’t feasible, the report concludes.

June 2002: City Council postpones making a decision on the Civic Center until its retreat in January 2003.

January 2003: Council fails to reach consensus on what to do but agrees to send a resolution to the state Legislature asking for a “menu of options” (read “taxes”) to help fund the renovation. One idea proposed by City Council is a tax on prepared foods and beverages.

2003: Several members of the local arts community launch a push for a separate performing-arts center to be built on College Street behind the Renaissance Hotel.

February 2005: The Civic Center Commission issues a white paper on the facility’s infrastructure needs, citing “severe structural and design problems” and calling for immediate action.

Sept. 8, 2005: The Asheville Civic Center Commission will co-sponsor a facility tour and public forum, seeking citizen input on the future of the Civic Center (see box, p. 9).

[Brian Postelle contributed to this story.]

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