Civic Center circus continues

“Well, it looks like they’ve done it again. Paid good money for something that’s not worth a tinker’s damn. The thinking doesn’t make sense. Never even reaches a logical conclusion.”

— former city engineering-staff member

Instead of spending maybe $25 million on renovation of the Civic Center, the latest professional consultant thinks we ought to tear it down … then spend many times that amount to build its replacement on the same site. And our uninformed newspaper editors go right along with this.

The latest consultant, Geoff Graham of Hunter Interests, says the present building is outdated, and that spending millions to renovate it will still leave us with “an inadequate and antiquated facility.” He argues that development of another arena is “certainly preferable to renovation of the existing structure.” Well, that’s simply wrong. He got the building all mixed up with the equipment — two different things.

There’s nothing wrong with the structure itself: It’s sound. In fact, it’s probably better built than anything we would get in the way of a replacement. Some equipment is outdated and needs to be replaced, but the consultant doesn’t seem to know the difference. Previous newspaper editorials and articles tend to confirm that the confusion has been long-standing.

And here’ s something else. They just may have the arena and the auditorium confused, as well. While they want to tear down the arena, they ignore the auditorium. Do they even realize that it’s an integral part of this complex? The two elements cannot be split. That won’t work. A case of confusion worse confounded.

The consultant is right about the present location: He found it to be the best, and gave valid reasons. Every prior consultant has reached the same conclusion. In fact, the Civic Center was built on this site, based on a recommendation from one of the country’s leading consulting firms. City Council should acknowledge that — and declare the debate over.

Then, get architectural engineers to study the present facility and come up with some plans for improvements. The place needs paint and polish, but, more than anything else, it needs state-of-the-art equipment. Nobody but Asheville still uses ropes for manually rigging stage-fly lofts, and so on. The public has just not been told the truth about the situation.

Much has been made of the electrical failure during an ice-hockey game last fall. How often does that happen? Once in a blue moon, right? Was the problem fixed? Nobody knows. Reporters talk to sports fans who don’t know anything either. We need to obtain viable cost estimates from reliable sources, people who understand that when a light bulb burns out, you don’t tear out the fixture.

The best thing about this latest report is that it recognizes the problem of siting large public facilities in the suburbs, and it gives examples. The Baltimore Orioles built a stadium in Baltimore, and it has been successful, while the Washington Redskins built a stadium in the boondocks, and it’s not. Cleveland went suburban to escape blight, and then had to replace that facility with one downtown. Cities all over the country have learned this lesson.

But the problem with this report is in its failure to examine the structural condition of our Civic Center. Did the consultant ever talk to those familiar with its construction? This is not an obsolete old ramshackle firetrap. It’s built like a bomb shelter. Sturdy as the Rock of Gibraltar — with an attractive, modern design.

Let’s get real, folks. We don’t have the money for wasteful demolition and fancy reconstruction. Or the need. When you have to make home improvements, what do you do? New wiring. Modernize the kitchen, add a bedroom or new plumbing for the bathroom. Do you tear the house down? Not if you’re a responsible person. Let’s act responsibly.

A new facility on this site would be the same size — which is all we need — with seating capacity of 10,000: room for 2,500 in the auditorium and 7,500 in the arena. That’s more than adequate for any known use. If you think otherwise, tell us what that use is. And it won’t be sports: Basketball, football, baseball and hockey draw only small crowds here.

Yes, Raleigh has a new arena. Cost: $152 million, on 140 acres. It seats 20,000 for big-time basketball. Deluxe boxes rent for $148,000 a year. Our sports fans are jealous of Raleigh. But that’s a great big metro area; they’re rich, and we’re poor. And note: Where did they put it? Out there in the country somewhere? No, it’s in Raleigh, next to the fairgrounds.

If civic leaders will shake off their lethargy and get behind progress, we can use the Civic Center as a convention-center facility, once we have one or more adjacent hotels. This would do the town more good than anything else in the way of civic projects. But even if our leaders won’t go this far, the first order of business here should be to stop talking about wiring, carpeting and seats — and get on with the job of fixing up the existing place.

As it is now, city fathers (and mothers) don’t want to spend any money until they know what’s going to happen up there. But nothing is going to happen until they face the facts, bite the bullet, and make some decisions. Consultants and editorial writers can’t do the job for them. And the first fact is that our current facility’s size is right for Asheville.

Do we always have to wait and see what the newest consultant thinks? No, folks, we don’t. The city’s first of four auditoriums was built on this site in 1900. It and its successors served this community for a century — bringing us into the new millennium. We don’t have another site. Consultants can provide important background info, but the decisions are ours to make — and pay for.

Let’s take a good look at the programs now scheduled at the Civic Center. These events are posted out front, every week. Forget editorial fantasies about new arenas — and hiring new consultants. Then, let’s all get together and make this valuable facility better.

[David Bailey is a longtime resident of Asheville and a retired stockbroker and journalist. He was involved in the discussions that led to the construction of the Asheville Civic Center and has followed its history with interest, ever since.]

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