Balancing the books

Sitting on a bench outside the Civic Center on Halloween evening, I enjoyed the most outstanding stint of people-watching in my lengthy career as a surreptitious observer. In Asheville, it’s hard to tell the outfits from the costumes sometimes, but on this occasion—Widespread Panic was performing—the ticket holders outdid themselves. From about 5:30 p.m. until just before the doors opened at 7:07, the parade of concertgoers constituted, without a doubt, the best free show in town in a long, long time.

I spoke with some early arrivals who briefly joined me on the bench. One couple said they’d flown to Western North Carolina from Oregon specifically to see Widespread Panic, because the band doesn’t often get out West. Another couple came from Missouri especially to see this group. These folks were staying overnight in a downtown hotel. Meanwhile, I overheard a third couple congratulating themselves on having gotten tickets early (all 6,430 tickets were sold in the first hour after they went on sale). After selling them for what must have been a serious profit, they were about to head over to a local restaurant for a fine supper. Ah, private enterprise! But it was the Civic Center show that brought all three couples to downtown Asheville, where they were eating in restaurants, staying overnight, dressing outrageously and having a wonderful time.

These examples are not anomalies. Judging by the credit cards used to purchase tickets, the Widespread Panic show brought people from 43 states and several countries to Asheville. Only 10 percent of the tickets were bought in North Carolina; all the rest were purchased from outside the state. That means the ticket sales and other activities delivered a huge boost to the local economy.

A 2006 economic-impact study by Western Carolina University professor Inhyuck “Steve” Ha found that the Civic Center costs $1.98 million a year to operate. Direct income covers all but about $400,000 per year, with a city subsidy making up the difference. More importantly, however, between 2003 and 2005, the visitors attracted by the Civic Center spent an average of $19.5 million per year in our community, providing significant income for local merchants, restaurateurs and hoteliers. In turn, the study notes, those local businesses paid an average of $2.4 million in annual federal taxes as well as $1.85 million in state and local taxes on income generated by the Civic Center, benefiting government at all levels. These figures put the facility’s supposed “deficit” in an entirely different light.

Part of the confusion stems from the critical underreported fact that the Civic Center gets no credit for most of the income it generates—including city tax revenues. Because the money flows into so many different pockets, there’s no way to directly attribute it to the facility. Meanwhile, because of the way the city’s budget is set up, the subsidy and maintenance costs are paid from a pocket that sees none of that revenue.

The special-event parking charges alone for that Halloween evening put $3,764 into city coffers, yet none of that money was credited to the Civic Center—it just flowed into the overall parking-services budget. What a frightful injustice on a fright-full night!

So I don’t want to hear about the Civic Center “losing money.” If the taxes and the parking revenue it generates were credited directly to the Civic Center, it would reveal that the venue is in fact a profitable venture for the city of Asheville. Such a deal!

[Downtown advocate George E. Keller chairs the Civic Center Commission.]

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