Let’s get cracking

“We got a lot of problems, but while we talk this thing to death, other cities went ahead and built new facilities. And nothing is ever going to happen up here until someone nails down the site.”

— former city planning official.

Thousands of hours and millions of words have been spent on the seemingly unending “dialogue” on what to do about the Civic Center, with little tangible progress to show for it all. Let’s take a realistic look at the situation, disregarding all the conversation and speculation about so-called locations all over this county.

There’s been no dearth of proposals for new or improved facilities. But where are the architectural sketches or schematic drawings, so newspaper readers could get some idea of what they were talking about? Instead, we’ve been treated to endless rambling round and round in the dark about impossible propositions.

First of all, by continuing to call the existing venue “a postage-stamp-sized site” and using other such derogatory language, the editors of the local daily have led the public into a swamp of misunderstanding and animosity. Despite a quarter-century of discussion and debate, which I have followed very closely, I have never seen the daily paper even publish a map of the area in question. Little wonder that the general public grew disgruntled and hostile.

The place to start a learning process would be the Civic Center’s Grand Concourse, with its large windows affording a good view of both the surrounding mountains and the layout immediately below — everything from Haywood Street to Lexington Avenue, Pack Library to I-240, the Grove Arcade to the Broadway/Merrimon interchange.

Now visualize this: Hiawassee Street and Vanderbilt Place closed; the Vanderbilt Sub-Station (CP&L) removed to Cherry Street, across I-240; the Vanderbilt Apartments and the Interstate Motel demolished; and the stub end of Rankin Avenue reconfigured to allow a fast exit from the new parking areas onto the expressway.

Plenty of room for development, right? Now run your eye down to Lexington, and picture everything that’s left added to the existing parking facilities along Rankin. Imagine additional multilevel garages capable of accommodating hundreds of automobiles. Their occupants can enter the Civic Center through convenient entrances on the east side, via a smooth, all-weather passageway.

Escalators, elevators and moving platforms carry patrons to and from the new 1,500-seat concert hall and 2,500-seat theater, with attractive lounge areas for enhanced comfort and enjoyment. There are plenty of restroom facilities on the lower level, and modern stage areas with ample room for loading and unloading stage sets at the rear.

Bus platforms and taxi ramps accommodate public transportation, getting those vehicles off the street and feeding their passengers into the center from the rear. The whole tone is upbeat, not hick-town: Pay attention to the customer, for a change! Enter into the realm of regional competition with Roanoke, Savannah, Winston-Salem, Knoxville.

Imagine the present obsolete, antiquated stage equipment replaced by modern gear; new seating; and everything remaining cleaned, repaired and polished. Imagine auditorium facilities that draw praise instead of complaints; searchlights combing the skies on the nights of big events; a new, 800-space parking garage on Haywood Street.

Well, you say, what about the proposed convention center and conference center? We need both. Every other city in the Southeast has them, and they’re top revenue producers. But those ideas got torpedoed by motel owners who see this as (perhaps unfair) competition. It isn’t, but until the media explain it to the people, it looks like that part of the vision is stuck in a quagmire.

And who’ s going to pay for this beautifully renovated facility? Well, a nicely renovated arena would definitely produce revenues. The size is right — all that talk of a coliseum was a lot of hot air — and once people wake up and smell the flowers, the green light will come on. Construction costs will need private financing, however, in partnership with the city.

If civic leaders have in fact done their homework, as they claim, then they know that in the Greenville/Spartanburg area, wealthy benefactors cooperated in raising the sums required for similar purposes (the Bi-Lo Center, the Peace Center and other costly facilities). Sure, they have more money than we do, but we have our share of affluent philanthropists.

So what comes next? Designers, architects and planners. People want to see what this big project will look like; you can’t expect anybody to get enthusiastic about a stack of controversial words. An artist’s rendering on the front page would be an eye-opener.

The hour is late; we’re behind the rest of the pack by a country mile. So let’s get started. Engage a local architect who understands the problem and has no ax to grind. Let that person team up with an outstanding specialist to produce the desired results — including sketches that ordinary readers can easily understand.

Experts agree that the three primary requirements for such sites are: 1. Access to the interstate. 2. Adequate parking. 3. Adjacent activity such as shopping, restaurants, museums and entertainment. We’ve got all three. Over the years, we’ve hired a lot of consultants, and they’ve all said that this is the right site. How many more do we need to tell us that? Let’s act.

Across the country, they’re no longer building arenas and auditoriums out in the boondocks: They’re building downtown. And where they did build on the outskirts, they’ve had to demolish and build again. Furthermore, if anyone had wanted to donate a big, level tract, he would already have done so by now. We’ve been waiting for Mr. Goodbar for 25 years.

So let’s quit stalling and capitalize on the valuable asset we already have, right there before our eyes.

[David Bailey, a longtime resident of Asheville, is a retired stockbroker and free-lance writer who likes to focus on the city, including the history of the Asheville Civic Center.]

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