Civic Center forum plows old ground for new answers

The Asheville Civic Center has been dissected, debated and dissed for years, yet a decision on what to do with it remains elusive. A Sept. 8 public forum, co-sponsored by the Civic Center Commission, the League of Women Voters and Mountain Xpress, aimed to take the public’s pulse on this divisive issue.

Following a tour of the facility led by Civic Center Director David Pisha, more than 100 people gathered in the upstairs banquet hall to hear a panel discussion and weigh in on a series of questions posed by moderator Maxine Dalton, a retired industrial psychologist.

After the panelists had spoken on each issue, the audience was asked to vote on a multiple-choice question; raising a red card signified support. Although the votes weren’t tallied, a clear majority seemed to favor keeping the Civic Center where it is, renovating the existing structure and letting a “nongovernmental independent authority” run it. Affirming that the Civic Center is a “valuable resource that should continue to be available to the citizenry,” audience members also supported the idea that the city should “consider private management contracts.”

In some instances, however, the unusual approach seemed to lead to confusion, producing scattered responses by the crowd that yielded no clear result.

Max Alexander, the chair of the Civic Center Commission, emphasized that his group had decided to hold the forum as a way “to go to the community and solicit their input on what the long-range plans for the Civic Center should be.” The commission, he said, chose the panelists based on their knowledge of the subject and ability to articulate their views, with an eye toward presenting a range of opinions. The forum sponsors, said Alexander, all approved the panelists and the format. “The goal,” Alexander explained, “was to have a high-level panel discussion on a broad range of questions and solicit audience feedback on those same subject areas.”

The forum featured three well-known panelists: local talk-show host Bill Fishburne, Buncombe County business owner Chad Nesbitt, and former Vice Mayor Ed Hay, who chaired the Civic Center Task Force for five years. (The task force commissioned the Heery report, which made recommendations for dealing with the Civic Center in the summer of 2001, after which the task force was disbanded.)

Below are excerpts from the panelists’ comments. Because some answers ranged beyond the stated topic, Xpress has arranged them not by the question asked but by the issue addressed.

The building

Ed Hay: “The Heery report, which is what we were recommending to City Council at the time, would take the present facility, renovate the existing arena, build a new performing-arts center on this site. It would turn the existing Thomas Wolfe Auditorium into what they called the ‘great hall.’ The result of all that is that we would have fully functioning facilities for what we do now, which is the arena and a performing-arts center, plus we would be able to offer what we can’t offer now, which is convention facilities. … That was five years ago, but times change and opinions change.”

Bill Fishburne: “I would think we need a new facility, and I think it can be done within the confines of this building. … But I think that is probably a good idea, to build a performing-arts center that is stand-alone and separate, because I still haven’t figured out — if you have 7,000 people in the Civic Center and you’ve got something going on in what would then be called the ‘great hall’ and then you also have something going on in your performing-arts center — where those people are going to park.”

The location

Bill Fishburne: “On the one hand, I don’t think this is a convenient, desirable location. It’s got that interstate right here, but how do you get here from the interstate if you don’t know the back roads? … I think a new location needs to be seriously looked at.”

“There is land in the downtown area that could be used for a Civic Center. But then you come back to the question about the cost. If [the Heery report] is accurate that it would cost so much more — nearly double to put in a Civic Center at a whole new location — then we have a whole new set of parameters.”

Chad Nesbitt: “It should stay right where it is. It’s an icon; it’s part of Asheville, North Carolina. I’m proud of it — it’s been here since I was a kid.”

Ed Hay: “[The task force] narrowed it basically to five locations. … This location, UNCA, down on the river, the location over next to City Hall … and we also looked at [the Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort]. The commission agreed unanimously on this: It was clearly the best choice to leave it here. We have the parking here, we have the access here, we have the infrastructure here.”

Task Force/Heery report

Bill Fishburne: “The Heery report has some flaws, but they could be addressed by a good architect. What they gave us was a study, not a final construction plan.”

Chad Nesbitt: “The task force met for five years, but they accomplished nothing. They wasted thousands of dollars trying to come up with some idea for this place and came up with nothing.”

Management

Ed Hay: “As long as it is solely supported by city tax dollars, it should be solely a city activity. I think city taxpayers expect that their elected officials will be in control of where their tax dollars are spent. If it was county and city money … then each of the stockholders would want to see their representatives participating in the management decisions.”

Bill Fishburne: “If we’re going to have the city and the county jointly trying to run this facility, if there’s a cash flow coming in from the county, at that point the whole thing’s up for grabs. Once we figure out the funding, if possible, the city should run it. If it’s not possible, we need to get some … we used to call it a Philadelphia lawyer to write up the agreement, so it can’t end up like we did with the last water agreement.”

Chad Nesbitt: “Sell this place; get rid of it. We need … to sell it to the private sector. We need to sell it to a hotel chain. We need to sell it to somebody that knows this kind of business.”

“You get somebody here with some money, and quit using our tax dollars to run a shoddy staff and get somebody in here with a hotel chain, let them market it.”

Funding

Ed Hay: “The bottom line is, there is no way to operate a facility like this, anywhere, without public support. It takes tax dollars to make it work. The private sector cannot run the kind of facility we have here. The dollars just don’t work.”

“The missing piece is the prepared-food-and-beverage tax that we need to get our legislators to pass for us. Every other facility that is similar in this state is funded by that or the room tax or a combination of the two.”

“Studies have shown that 50 percent of the expenditures made for food and beverages in Asheville are made from people outside the county. It’s a way to capture the money from the people who are coming into town — folks who are coming to concerts and not having to pay the freight to keep the building going — and at the same time get what we want as a community.”

Bill Fishburne: “If you tax those rooms at 5 percent additional on the hotel/motel charges, that would bring in about $6.25 million. So we don’t have enough money coming in from that to do much more than pay the interest on the [bonds issued]; it’s just not enough money. The point being, you may have to have multiple sources.”

“You can find sources for money, but is there no end to taxation? I don’t like raising taxes, but we had an overwhelming vote to do the Civic Center. How do we want to pay for it? An additional tax seems to be the only way, and if we tax people who come into the county, then that at least takes some of the burden off our own backs.”

Chad Nesbitt: “I certainly wouldn’t tax the people to death. That’s what these politicians keep coming up with, and these boards. I would sell — sell it to the private sector. They will make money.”

“A hotel will bring in $10 million into this facility, and even if they couldn’t build a hotel right beside it, they could still shuttle people over here. It’s the way that you market. That’s one of the biggest problems we have with the Civic Center staff is they don’t know how to market.”

Promotion

[Editor’s note: Apart from public ice skating, the Civic Center relies on outside promoters for all of its events.]

Bill Fishburne: “I don’t think the current Civic Center management does a poor job, considering they have virtually zero resources to draw on. I don’t know how many other things [besides the Asheville Aces hockey team] end up in front of City Council, but there’s a lot of pressure that goes on the management of the Civic Center that needs to be removed in order to do the job better.”

“It would be very interesting to put up for bids [the job of] being the promoter of the Civic Center.”

Chad Nesbitt: “The Civic Center needs to be directly responsible and involved with everything that goes on here.”

“The things that we have going on up here are not quality. I know what they are doing: Because of the type of people that are here, you want to get those type of acts and the type of music they listen to. And I understand that. But what about the rest of us out in the county? What about the people in Haywood County and the region? These people are where the money is. Asheville, yes, but you’ve got a whole broader spectrum of people here to bring in some cash. you’ve got to look at that. Whatever happened to country music?”

Ed Hay: “A promoter takes a risk, and if he does well he makes money, but if he doesn’t do well he loses money. And the policy was — at least in my day — that we can’t put the city in the position of losing money. We’ll let the the private promoters come in and take that risk.”

Politics and delay

Chad Nesbitt: “It’s constantly talking about it and not doing anything about it. And talk is cheap. When you’re sitting there throwing money into a dying hole that is not being managed right, somebody needs to step up and take a leadership position and say enough’s enough.”

“I do think we need to get away from people who have been looking at it for five years. We need to get on with it. We don’t need forums like this anymore. This is boring; we’ve had enough forums like this.”

Bill Fishburne: “I think the issue came across because of the state budget crisis, and there was a lack of political will. City Council didn’t see that it was reasonable to proceed in the past four years. This issue should have been up there at the top of the list, but it didn’t make it up there.”

“We need political leadership that is willing to do something. Four years ago, the mayor — not to pick on him, because he’s got a whole City Council that didn’t do it either — but four years ago, we’ve got a mayor who said his main priority was to fix up the Civic Center. We’re waiting.”

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