TDA grants $45K to Wortham Center amid process debate

CLEARING THE AIR: A $45,000 grant for the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts will cover equipment, installation and training for a new air ionization system meant to neutralize coronavirus particles that may linger in enclosed spaces and infect visitors or performers. Photo by Will Newnham

What’s the going price for fresh air? According to the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, about $45,000. 

During their meeting of April 28, Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority board members voted unanimously to approve a Tourism Product Development Fund grant in that amount to cover a new air ionization system at the Wortham Center. The system is designed to filter air and neutralize coronavirus particles that may linger in enclosed spaces and infect visitors or performers. 

But the move drew mixed feelings from some board members, driven not by the project itself but by what they suggested was an unclear process for distributing funds.

In early 2019, the authority paused new grants from the TPDF — which represents the 25% of occupancy taxes that by law must be spent on capital projects to drive new overnight visits — to embark on a long-term planning effort called the Tourism Management and Investment Plan. The TMIP aimed to align grant-making with Asheville and Buncombe County government priorities on a roughly 10-year timeframe. However, the plan’s progress was stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic before the TDA could finalize its new approach.

The process publicly remains paused, and no grant application is available on the TDA’s website. But on March 25, the tourism authority board unanimously voted to reengage the volunteer TPDF committee to review new funding requests. Robert Foster, the committee’s chair, noted that the Wortham Center request was the only one his group had considered since the March vote. 

Board member Andrew Celwyn voiced concern about approving the funds under those circumstances. “We don’t have any other requests coming through because no one else knows that we’re available for giving out grants because we haven’t established anything,” he said. 

Fellow board member Kathleen Mosher asked Vic Isley, president and CEO of the Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, when the TDA would move from the current “one-off situation” to a longer-term model. Isley responded that the authority was waiting to coordinate with city and county leaders to implement a new grant-making system. Both governments will receive federal coronavirus recovery funds, she added, which may impact their funding needs.  

“We are working and in conversations with our stakeholders at the county and at the city level. Certainly when the TMIP process was going through and throughout the calendar year of 2019, there were community priorities that were identified through that,” Isley said. “As the city and the county have been coming into unprecedented dollars from [federal COVID-19 relief], we want to align with them to make sure we understand if their priorities have changed and how they have changed so that we can be in alignment with that.”

Isley said further discussion on a new grant system would take place at the board’s next meeting on Wednesday, May 26. 

In other news

In May, the BCTDA will hold a series of virtual panel discussions called “Deep Community Conversations.” The meetings will take place 12-1:15 p.m. Monday, May 10; Wednesday, May 12; Monday, May 17; and Wednesday, May 19. Panelists will speak about pandemic recovery, sustainable growth, safe and responsible travel and Asheville’s creative spirit. The online events are open to the public. Registration and more information are available at


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