Now’s the time

In late 2004, the Asheville Civic Center Commission sent City Council the first version of a white paper detailing the facility’s needs. The document laid out three key concerns that had to be addressed to protect the city’s investment and maintain the Civic Center’s standing as one of the region’s major economic and cultural engines.

The first item was a list of urgently needed repairs required to maintain the building’s structural integrity and security while providing patrons with much-needed, basic amenities. Many of these defects are supposed to be addressed by the five-year capital-improvements plan approved by City Council back in February. But while some work has been started, we are all still eagerly anticipating having workers show up to start fixing the roof, crumbling walls and other problems that are screaming for attention.

Second, the commission suggested to our local leaders that a secure funding source be put in place so that, once repaired, the facility would not be allowed to slide back into such a deteriorated state. This might seem obvious, but the county and state—believing that the issue was somehow tied to the city/county water dispute—balked at the idea of providing any sort of funding. The city then decided to bankroll the capital-improvement plan out of property-tax revenues. I suppose you could view that as a combined city/county/state solution, since Asheville residents belong to all three—but that wasn’t what the commission (or many residents) had envisioned.

The third recommendation was to make a clear decision about the kinds of events that should be held in the Civic Center’s various venues. The marketplace is a great arbiter of needs and desires, but we felt that it does so by looking backward to what’s been successful in the past—not forward to where the city or its residents want it to be.

Programming this kind of facility is a complex issue involving a multitude of questions. For example: Should the Civic Center try to schedule a top-rated band for a single Saturday-night performance or focus more on multi-day events such as the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands? Should the Civic Center be an integral part of Bele Chere or sit empty during that busy weekend? Should the 10-year-old painting done by local sixth-graders remain on the walls of Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, or should that space be used to display works by budding local artists and craftspeople? These and other such specific questions should be addressed by the folks who are being asked to pay the bills: us!

The recent resignation of the Civic Center’s manager—and, more importantly, the search for his replacement—provides another opportunity to discuss this issue. As the candidates for the job make the rounds meeting the community’s movers and shakers, I would hope that ample time will be allotted and mechanisms established to give city residents a significant role in the selection process.

The Civic Center directorship is a key staff position. Although this person controls only a moderate budget, he or she is responsible for one of the city’s biggest capital investments. More importantly, the director welcomes more than 300,000 residents, visitors, promoters and performers to Asheville and Western North Carolina each year. That’s not exactly peanuts—and it’s all the more reason we need an inclusive selection process, rather than giving the public a symbolic look at a few finalists whose goals and motives we may not understand or agree with.

What can you do? Start by peppering your elected officials with reminders that you want to be part of the process. Second, make your feelings about programming known to City Council, the city manager and the members of the Civic Center Commission. Finally, if given the opportunity to participate in the selection process, please use it to help make the Civic Center a real part of this community.

[Max Alexander is a current member and former chair of the Asheville Civic Center Commission.]

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