In the summer of 2004 the Asheville Civic Center Commission found itself at a crossroads. A facility that was bringing more than 300,000 people downtown every year was being allowed to deteriorate right before our eyes. And although commission members spoke with city, county and state officials as well as local business organizations about the need to address this valuable regional asset, our message didn’t seem to resonate with them, and there was a total lack of leadership in searching for a solution. Several commissioners wanted to resign in protest; others had a different idea. They decided to take the problem to the ultimate stakeholders: you, the local folks who collectively own the Civic Center.
The commission began by compiling an in-depth record of the elements that needed repair or replacement, along with a suggested schedule and cost estimates. We then worked with Nelda Holder and her colleagues at Mountain Xpress to get some in-depth reporting on the facility’s needs, the benefits it brings to the area, and how people feel about it. We also teamed up with that paper and the League of Women Voters to sponsor a forum on the future of the Civic Center.
Many of you attended that session. Matt Mittan, Bill Fishburne and David Hurand were kind enough to allow commission members airtime to answer your questions about the benefits of revitalizing the ailing structure. Tony Kiss and the editorial staff at the Citizen-Times reported on the wide variety of events held at the facility and took our elected officials to task for letting it fall into such a state of disrepair.
Late in 2005, the city put together a task force to take another look at the Civic Center. A tremendous number of you showed up for those wintry night meetings to demonstrate that you value the Civic Center and want its problems solved. Jan Davis delivered that message to the Asheville City Council, and Bill Stanley took it to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. Recently, Council members approved funding for an initial capital-improvement plan for the Civic Center. But while they should be congratulated for that vote, the real thanks go to all of you who showed up at the meetings and patiently explained to them — over and over — why they should start the repair process. So, from all the Civic Center commissioners: THANKS! Having said that, however, we still need your help with a few things.
First, the two phases of work just approved by the city do not include critically needed repairs to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. As a result, we’ll continue to see the evidence of previous roof leaks on the auditorium’s walls and ceiling, in addition to whatever new stains may be produced by future heavy rains. The fire alarm is unrepairable and needs to be replaced. The carpet is faded, stained and worn and needs to be replaced. Finally, we need to accelerate the installation of lights and other amenities that will present a greener footprint and make the facility more efficient to operate. City Council shouldn’t simply forget the Thomas Wolfe or relegate it to some future phase of repairs that may never be implemented. Even if a new performing-arts center is built, the current auditorium will be in use for quite a while.
Second, the county commissioners need to realize that the Civic Center is a regional facility and, as such, they should vigorously support it — both financially and politically. We can’t let the water disagreement cloud every interaction between the city and county. Seems to me these two local governments could make two stacks: one containing all the things you can agree on, and the other containing all the things you can’t. For God’s sake, work on the first stack awhile — we’re tired of hearing about the second one!
Finally, our state legislative delegation really needs to be goosed into action. North Carolina is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support a Dell factory near Raleigh and a Google computer facility in Lenoir. The Civic Center provides 250 local jobs and generates $20 million to $25 million in annual economic impact, according to a study by economist Steve Ha of Western Carolina University. Meanwhile, the state has helped fund comparable facilities in Raleigh and Charlotte. Can’t our state representatives get a little help for us?
Once again, many thanks to all of you. The progress that’s been made so far is all because of you. Now we just need to help the folks we elected continue to do the right thing.
[Longtime Asheville resident Max Alexander is chairman of the Civic Center Commission.]