After more than two hours of discussion, the Asheville City Council agreed to appoint a task force to consider what to do about the dilapidated Civic Center.
This marks the latest in a long-running series of attempts by this and previous City Councils to reach agreement on a plan for the aging structure. In 1996, concerned about the impact of the planned Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, Council appointed the Task Force on the Future of the Civic Center, charged with making recommendations on the best use of the facility. Chaired by then Vice Mayor Ed Hay, the group issued its final report when in 2000 and was disbanded soon after.
Meanwhile, City Council hired two separate consulting firms to conduct their own studies. In addition, the Council-appointed Asheville Civic Center Commission conducted its own in-depth study, which identified the building’s most pressing needs. Based on that document, the commission produced a white paper back in February highlighting a prioritized list of challenges and suggested solutions. The urgency of the issue is likewise nothing new; current Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower chaired the commission before running for City Council four years ago, and a number of other candidates in that election also emphasized the issue.
At the outset of Council’s Oct. 4 work session, which was dedicated solely to discussing the Civic Center, Mayor Charles Worley announced that the objective was to hold a “very basic policy discussion,” which he compared to “taking a view from the 30,000-foot level.” But in the current charged pre-election atmosphere, some Council members seemed to ignore Worley’s attempt to limit the scope of the dialogue.
Even City Manager Gary Jackson‘s brief presentation on key events in the facility’s history fell victim to competing agendas. One of Jackson’s points was that, last year, City Council had unanimously adopted the strategic goal of “a renovated Civic Center that is the premier entertainment destination” in the region. But when Worley asked Council to reaffirm that goal, Mumpower instead asked if they could “move on to the rest of the discussion.” Council member Joe Dunn concurred, asserting that discussing this goal would bring nothing new to the table.
Council member Brownie Newman, meanwhile, said he wanted to consider all options, including both renovation and building a new facility. And Council member Holly Jones questioned whether “premier equals state-of-the-art” and whether “regional equals multipurpose.”
A frustrated Worley interrupted the meandering discussion, noting: “We can wordsmith all day long, but the threshold question is, do we want to do something to improve the Civic Center? If the answer is no, we can adjourn the meeting.”
But Mumpower, undeterred, directed a series of questions at architect John Cort, who originally designed the Civic Center. Mumpower inquired about the feasibility of renovating the arena portion, which he said is “built like a fortress.” Cort acknowledged that renovation would be difficult, saying the building’s foundation extends 80 feet into the ground.
Mumpower also asked about Thomas Wolfe Auditorium’s inaccessibility to people with disabilities. The auditorium, Cort explained, was built long before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Among other things, he noted, the ADA mandates equal numbers of toilets for men and women — a requirement that neither the auditorium nor the arena meets. “You’re undertoileted,” Cort said bluntly. As for renovation, his advice was to scale back the seating in both components to gain the space needed to bring them into compliance within the limits of the existing infrastructure.
From there, the wide-ranging discussion touched on a whole host of issues: seating arrangements, the respective revenues generated by concerts and trade shows, the feasibility of relocating the Progress Energy substation that sits right behind the arena, the economic impact of Civic Center events on downtown businesses — and back to ADA concerns once again, when Mumpower revisited the matter later in the meeting.
After two hours, Worley suggested that City Council appoint a seven-member task force consisting of three Council members and representatives of various stakeholder groups. Just who those stakeholders would be generated further discussion, but Council members eventually decided on four groups: the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, the Tourism Development Authority, the Civic Center Commission and the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts.