As I meet with folks in our community, I hear many suggestions about the Civic Center. Some say tear it down; the Heery Report (the city’s adopted conceptual plan) recommends remodeling it and replacing some parts. Some city officials have proposed building a new facility on the river. Others argue for a site on Broadway near UNCA. Meanwhile, an additional arena has been suggested for the WNC Agricultural Center across from the airport. Who’s right? I don’t know. Maybe none of them; maybe all of them. But here’s what I do know.
Concerts, plays, performances and trade shows do well at the Civic Center, drawing 300,000 to 350,000 patrons a year downtown. But team sports, both professional and amateur, don’t do well. I don’t know why; no one does. Pseudo-athletic events (Toughman Contest, professional wrestling) seem to do OK.
Thomas Wolfe Auditorium is more than 60 years old, and it hasn’t been upgraded since 1974 (when the arena, exhibition hall and foyer were built around it). It will never, ever be a great performing-arts venue, but right now it’s the only one we have that can seat the number of patrons needed to make tickets affordable. The 2,400 seats allow promoters to book shows, make a profit and keep ticket prices in the $20 to $80 range. Fewer seats would mean higher prices.
The arena, meanwhile, is now more than 30 years old and in sore need of refurbishment! Event patrons, performers and area residents deserve better.
The roof over both facilities is shot and has been for some time. In fact, there’s a very good chance that rainwater flowing through the big cracks in the roof is causing structural damage. It’s not hard to spot the water stains on the walls and ceiling inside. But it’s the damage you don’t see that’s the real concern.
At this point, the outdated fire-alarm system is only one malfunction away from disaster. It’s more than 30 years old, and replacement parts are no longer available.
What’s more, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance is a joke (in spirit if not in fact), and there’s a critical lack of the kinds of things that contribute to genuine creature comfort (modern restrooms, adequate seat size, meeting spaces, food-preparation facilities, etc.).
As for what to do, there are plenty of ideas around. Mr. Hammons and the city, county, state and federal governments might build a hotel and convention center on or near the Civic Center. UNCA might build a 5,000-seat arena on or near the campus. The Agricultural Center might build a 6,000-seat performance arena on its grounds, and a new performing-arts center might be built behind the Renaissance Asheville Hotel, on the river or at some other location.
But at the moment, these are just ideas. There are no concrete plans — and therein lies the problem. Because until some kind of tangible plan is finally and fully put together, things will just keep limping along. We’ll keep waiting for the roof to fall in at Thomas Wolfe; we’ll wait for the electrical or the sound system to totally go out — or for an answer to magically appear. That, at least, has been the strategy for several years now, and it clearly isn’t working.
So I’d like to propose an alternative. First, let’s address the building’s most pressing problems. Would that be money down the drain? Not really. Because even if any of the above-mentioned ideas do come to fruition, it will be at least four or five years before they open for business. And in the interim, this community needs some kind of functional facility to accommodate the concerts, graduations, business shows, meetings and other events now hosted by the Civic Center. City Council took a step in the right direction recently when it approved funds for repairing the arena’s roof. That’s a good start, but the roof over Thomas Wolfe is also in critical need of fixing.
Second, we as a region need to develop a common vision of what we want the Civic Center to do for us. Some maintain that the Heery Report already did this, but that hasn’t proven to be the case. A Sept. 8 public forum on the future of the Civic Center, co-sponsored by the Asheville Civic Center Commission, the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County and Mountain Xpress, is another positive step that may help define the requirements for a future facility and lay out a road map for how to get there.
And third, whether the vision is to maintain the existing facility or to build one or more new ones, our local, state and federal governments (as well as private citizens) will need to get involved in helping develop a long-term funding plan.
None of these things is easily accomplished, and though a few early steps have been taken, we need to build momentum, guided by a comprehensive plan for the city and the region. Achieving this will take hard work, long hours, a thick skin — and, most of all, leadership. So I ask all Mountain Xpress readers to push (ever so gently) our elected representatives, the media and my commission to step up to the challenge.
[Max Alexander has lived in Asheville for more than 13 years. He is chairman of the Asheville Civic Center Commission.]