What’s the use?

Can you have it all? That seemed to be the unspoken question at the second meeting of the city’s latest Civic Center Task Force on Nov. 21, which featured a panel made up of various promoters and others who stage events in the facility. There was no clear consensus on an answer, but the panelists did speak candidly about their respective needs and how the current Civic Center does and doesn’t meet them.

With at least two dozen members of the public in attendance, the meeting began with an event overview and operational perspective by Civic Center Director David Pisha, who broke his account of the facility’s current use and revenues into digestible chunks. The arena, said Pisha, accounts for 52 percent of the Civic Center’s profit from events; the auditorium is next with 32 percent, and the remaining 16 percent comes from the exhibit hall. Concerts bring in the lion’s share of the profit (69 percent) with trade shows (11 percent) and other performing arts events (10 percent) making up most of the rest.

Following Pisha’s report, task force Chairman Jan Davis turned the meeting over to facilitator Ian Vingoe (formerly with the Heery International consulting firm, which the previous Civic Center Task Force hired to study the facility’s needs several years ago). Vingoe led a panel discussion of market demographics and the current structure’s perceived strengths and weaknesses. A nearly three-hour discussion ensued.

Doing business in Asheville

The flesh-and-blood panelists were: Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment, a producer and promoter of concerts throughout the Southeast who has brought such luminaries as Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers and Emmylou Harris to Asheville; Steven Hageman, executive director of the Asheville Symphony; John Patterson of Western Carolina Productions, who produces the Western Carolina Home Show and other expo events; and Sean Henry representing Palace Sports, the new owner of the Asheville Tourists. (Although the Tourists don’t use the Civic Center, Henry was sharing his expertise in local promotions and demographics.) Participating by phone was Jack Meyer of Nederlander Producing Company, which promotes the touring Broadway shows that play the Civic Center.

Asked about where their customers come from, the panelists gave widely varying answers. Capps said his big concerts draw some 70 percent of their audience from out of town, while the symphony audience is mostly local. The expo shows draw on an area ranging from Statesville to upstate South Carolina to east Tennessee, while Nederlander figures on a 50-mile radius for standard shows, but two-and-a-half hours’ drive for blockbusters such as Cats (which sold out at the Civic Center recently).

The current facility’s biggest drawback, most panelists agreed, is access. “Load-in is a disaster,” Capps declared, referring to the cement ramp’s steep incline and the difficulty of navigating equipment and transport vehicles. The rigging and dressing-room access in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium are also highly problematic, he added. But local promoters also face another big drawback that goes beyond the Civic Center’s current problems, said Capps: explaining Asheville to touring artists. Because of the city’s relatively small population, he has to educate performers about the fact that this is a desirable destination. “A lot of [Asheville] shows outsell [their] counterpart in Atlanta,” Capps noted.

Keeping up with trends

Both Patterson and Meyer agreed about the access problem; Cats, noted Meyer, couldn’t even bring all its sets into the building. But for Hageman and the symphony, the No. 1 problem is sound. “Acoustics, acoustics, acoustics,” he proclaimed. And scheduling the symphony on the same date as a large, loud show next door creates an impossible situation, he added, because of bleed-through noise as well as parking and traffic problems.

Capps mentioned another factor that could affect decisions on what to do with the Civic Center: a growing trend toward niche-oriented tours and away from expensive, large-venue shows. And most panelists said they would prefer to keep the facility in downtown Asheville — which Meyer called a “tremendous asset.”

But the panelists’ disparate needs cast some doubt on the viability of a multi-use facility. “We’re adaptable,” said Patterson, whose expos simply require a certain amount of open space. Hageman, however, once again emphasized the problem of having two disparate venues under one roof. And Meyer stressed the importance of building a facility that meets potential users’ needs (in terms of capacity, location and parking and technical requirements) to ensure that it can be self-supporting. “It’s hard in a smaller community,” he admitted. And Capps chimed in, “Make every effort possible to deal with reality,” rather than simply adhering to a “build it and they will come” philosophy.

The task force meets next on Monday, Dec. 5, as it continues on the fast track toward a Feb. 28 recommendation to the new City Council. According to Davis, the Dec. 5 agenda will be to hear information on comparable multi-use facilities, and those in cities of similar size, to learn about what they do, what they cost, and how they were funded. The public is invited to all task-force meetings, and Davis says he wants them there.

“We’ve got to come up with a product that people want,” he emphasizes. To that end, Davis says he hopes to allocate a good portion of the Dec. 5 meeting (which will be held in the Civic Center Banquet Hall, starting at 5:30 p.m.) to public comment.

Future task-force meetings are slated for Jan. 4, 18 and 23, and Feb. 1 and 6. A full public-input session is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 18, and a second may be added to the schedule. The meetings are also recorded for video playback on the city’s government channel (Charter cable channel 11).

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