“Environmental protection does not have to come at the expense of the economy of our state.”
— Nancy Thompson, Progress Energy
Remember the Asheville Smoke? Who could forget the sights and sounds at the Asheville Civic Center on a game night: The eerie blue-white glow of the rink, the sound of skate blades carving tight turns and bodies crunching against plywood barriers, and the mayhem of the brawls, egged on by the fans’ ceaseless chants of “Let’s go Smoke! Let’s go Smoke!”
But like a surgeon general’s warning come true, the Smoke met an early death, filing for bankruptcy after just four seasons. Local hockey fans, however, survived, clinging to the hope that pro hockey would one day return to this city.
Their wait may soon be over. At the Asheville City Council’s Nov. 25 formal session, Civic Center Commission Chairman Peter Crosa urged the city’s elected leaders to pass a resolution authorizing the city manager to sign a contract with a new minor-league hockey team. “We look at this as 30 events that could have been 30 dark days for the Civic Center,” noted Crosa, referring to the Civic Center’s perennial cash shortage and the number of home games planned for the new team. Council concurred, unanimously approving the resolution.
Barring unforeseen complications, the Asheville Aces of the World Hockey Association II will begin play in the 2004-05 season.
Not everyone at the meeting was gung-ho on the proposal, though. During a public hearing on the matter, local hockey fan Dennis Justice urged caution, noting that “any chance for hockey could be hockey’s last chance in Asheville.” To highlight his point, Justice pointed to a clause in the 46-page draft contract permitting the Aces to back out of the deal provided they gave the city 60 days’ notice. “If you vote for this [contract] without any penalty for [breaking it], then you’re begging them to go elsewhere and build a new facility,” he warned, underscoring his point by informing Council that the hockey league’s president is a real-estate developer.
Responding to Council members’ questions about legal safeguards for the city, Civic Center Director David Pisha cited another clause requiring the team to post a nonrefundable $60,000 deposit with the city prior to the start of each season. That money would be credited back to the team on a “pro-rata basis,” and “if for any reason the team stops play at any time, the remainder of the deposit is forfeited,” the contract states. Speaking confidently about a document he’d helped draft, Pisha declared, “We believe we’ve put together a contract that protects the city, but at the same time allows the team to get out there and promote themselves.”
Council member Carl Mumpower praised the deal, noting, “This is a strong contract, and it opens the doors of the Civic Center in a way that is fair to the hockey team, the city and the fans.” His colleague Brian Peterson agreed. Comparing this contract to the one between the city and the Asheville Altitude basketball team, Peterson noted, “This protects our interests and isn’t a complete giveaway.” Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy also voiced her support. “This Council has heard that this community wants hockey,” she said. Then, in an apparent message to the puck fans in attendance, Bellamy added, “This Council supports hockey — but we need you in the seats to support it.”
Memorial Stadium upgrade
In other sports news, City Council approved a resolution authorizing the Parks and Recreation Department to proceed with a conceptual design for renovating Memorial Stadium. Parks & Rec Director Irby Brinson told Council about the planned $1.5 million face-lift. In a memo distributed prior to the meeting, Brinson announced the formation of an action committee that will work with his department to “aggressively secure funding through grants, foundations and sponsorships, as well as the Capital Improvement Plan for the City of Asheville.” The renovation plan, the memo noted, will also include a “proper recognition for our war dead to be constructed at the site.” This addition, said the memo, will rectify the fact that a “true memorial to the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice to our country was never properly constructed.”
Brinson then thanked Council member Mumpower for having served as the driving force behind the initiative. Mumpower, however, publicly insisted that thanks should go to this reporter for writing a story about the decaying stadium that Mumpower said had motivated him to explore the issue and make it a priority.
Council unanimously approved the plan.
To sue or not to sue?
During the public-comment portion of the meeting, Blue Ridge Outdoors Editor Will Harlan, a member of the Canary Coalition (an environmental advocacy group), asked Council to consider adopting a resolution asking North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper to join a multistate class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The suit, filed by the attorneys general of 14 states, is an attempt to get the EPA to reverse its decision exempting numerous older power plants from the restrictions mandated by the New Source Review component of the federal Clean Air Act. “Joining the lawsuit,” argued Harlan, “is very much in the interest of Asheville’s economy, tourism and the health of its citizens.” Harlan added that Jackson County and the towns of Sylva and Chapel Hill had already passed similar resolutions. He then reminded Council that allowing the EPA to weaken the Clean Air Act could contribute to local air-pollution problems, which in turn could result in the region’s achieving nonattainment status (an EPA classification that kicks in when air pollution reaches a certain level. Nonattainment results in a freeze on highway-construction projects, as well as further restrictions on industry). “Nonattainment status could have a long-term economic impact on the region,” Harlan warned.
But Progress Energy spokesperson Nancy Thompson rebutted Harlan’s plea, urging Council not to approve the resolution. Both Black Mountain and Winston-Salem, she noted, had rejected similar resolutions. Thompson added that manufacturing jobs are fleeing the state at an increasing rate and it doesn’t need such a “regulatory climate” at this time. Progress Energy plants in North Carolina, she said, have lowered their nitrogen-oxide emissions by 77 percent; furthermore, she maintained, the EPA is “not rolling back emission standards.” In closing, Thompson observed, “Environmental protection does not have to come at the expense of the economy of our state.”
Council could take action on the resolution at their next formal session, scheduled for Dec. 2.
Thanks for serving
The Nov. 25 meeting was the last one for two Council members. Brian Peterson didn’t seek re-election, and Jim Ellis was defeated in his bid for a second term. Hazel Fobes, chairperson of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air, took three minutes during the public-comment period to read a letter from her organization thanking Peterson. In the letter, Fobes praised Peterson for his “steady presence, exploratory questioning and insightful judgments” during his tenure on Council.
But the letter didn’t stop there; instead, it went on to address the question of Peterson’s continued service on a key board. “The members of CSDWA sincerely hope that you will be retained on the Regional Water Authority until the expiration of your term, Sept. 30, 2005. To our knowledge, the County Commission and the City Council have never removed their representatives during their terms even when those individuals ceased to be on the Commission or Council. The experience has been to the contrary. Mr. Tommy Sellers left the City Council, but at the request of the present Mayor remained on the Water Authority to complete his term.”
With Peterson about to leave elected office and the Water Authority frequently mired in complex issues, Fobes’ letter raises a question not only of precedence, but also of strategy. Because if Peterson is removed from the Authority board, who will take his place?