Civic Center remains key to city’s prosperity

A recent letter to Mountain Xpress showed a woeful lack of understanding about both the Civic Center and the responsibilities of city government.

First, the facts: The Civic Center complex does run a yearly deficit. So what? So do the police and fire departments, Parks & Rec, the schools and all the other areas of city government, except for the tax office. So one question might be, “How well is the Civic Center being run?”

Quite well, apparently, compared to its peers. Civic Center revenues have increased more than 40 percent in the last three years. Year to year, attendance is up, and the number of events has remained constant. Most of our “neighbors,” on the other hand, have experienced a 40- to 50-percent decrease in the number of concerts (a major source of revenue for most venues). The fact that Asheville continues to host as many concerts as it does speaks volumes about the vibrancy of the local market, the Civic Center as a venue, and the environment created by the facility’s management and staff.

The letter writer’s anecdotal view of the Civic Center’s ability to generate a full house might be tempered by the events he attends. Warren Haynes sold out in December; Madam Butterfly had a full house in January. The Lord of the Dance is sold out, and Bravo has announced a sellout for Scots Highlanders performances. But is it really the Civic Center’s mission to be at 100-percent utilization — or to turn a profit?

The current facility was built in the early 1970s, when downtown Asheville was a ghost town. The City Council felt that luring folks downtown to attend events might help revitalize the city center (not to mention the tax base). Guess what? It worked. Asheville has one of the most vibrant downtowns in the Southeast; restaurants, theaters, music venues, galleries and residents abound. I’d say congratulations to the folks who, 30 years ago, took the gamble and spent the money to build the Civic Center.

What’s next? Several proposals have been circulating to adapt and/or augment the aging structure. None of the sane ones include expanded seating. They do include state-of-the-art facilities where we, the people, could continue to enjoy concerts; craft, antique, gun and boat shows; high-school and college graduations; Bravo performances; and the occasional wedding. In other words, they’re visions for enabling the Civic Center to continue to fulfill its primary missions: providing a meeting place for the citizens and further impetus for downtown growth.

How do we pay for it? A prepared-food-and-beverage tax. Studies show that citizens outside Asheville and Buncombe County would pay 50 percent of this tax. That means that we, the citizens, get a nice bang for our buck, letting visitors pay for a considerable portion of the revitalized Civic Center. All in all, a pretty good investment.

Do we need sidewalks, bike trails and mass transit? You bet we do. Maybe one way to get those things is to continue to enhance the tax base of Asheville’s business district. The Civic Center complex has proven to be a magnet for one type of investment the city needs. The tax revenue generated by those investments can be used for the sidewalks, bike trails and mass transportation the author rightly points out are needed by our city. This is not a zero-sum decision; in fact, there’s a great deal of synergy between them. The real question is one of timing.

The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium opened in January 1940. Major redevelopment took place in the ’70s, when the arena was built. The reconstruction, however, did nothing to alleviate the limits of the 1930 design or the infrastructure problems. Both facilities suffer from sight, sound and staging issues as well as falling short of complete Americans with Disabilities Act compliance. And neither venue enjoys the consistent investment in maintenance and repairs that buildings of their era require. Unless we move quickly to remedy this situation, we’re in danger of losing the interest of promoters and patrons alike.

We need to ensure that this “meeting place for citizens” maintains the viability and stature it needs to be the anchor for downtown, as it has been for the last 30 years. We need to invest wisely, so both our citizens and our city can prosper and that prosperity can multiply to meet the continuing needs of residents, visitors, taxpayers and businesses. History has shown that previous investments in the Civic Center and Thomas Wolfe Auditorium have proven to be wise investments. Let’s continue with that wisdom, investing in the future and measuring success with criteria that reflect the true value of that investment.

[Max Alexander serves on the Asheville Civic Center Commission.]

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