Council Views Options for Civic Center - TribPapers

Council Views Options for Civic Center

The Patron-Driven design for Thomas Wolfe Auditorium seemed to be the favorite, provided sufficient outside funding could be secured. Screenshot.

Asheville – Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said somebody had sent her a copy of the minutes from a 1990s meeting during which city council acknowledged that the civic center needed repairs, concluded they didn’t have enough money, and decided to kick the can down the road. Even then, jokes about the city commissioning another study to analyze the problems with the civic center were getting old.

City Manager Debra Campbell, whose contract was recently renewed with accolades, was through kicking the can. The civic center was like that old car with monthly repair bills higher than payments on a nice, new car. When Manheimer said she didn’t want to make some short-term repairs and get complacent, Campbell replied, “We can’t… The more we invest in this facility the way it is, we’re not going to get the return on investment that this community deserves.”

Director of Community and Regional Entertainment Facilities Chris Corl presented options for renovating the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium to city council at a recent worksession. The first, the Broadway, would cost $183–$198 million and incorporate every wish from stakeholders and patrons provided in a public engagement process held three years ago. Corl explained that the civic center loading area currently has a 60-degree ramp, a small stage door, and only enough room for about four trucks. Cats could never be performed because of the logistics. When the Moscow Ballet performs in Asheville, there is only a backdrop curtain and recorded music. When it plays in larger venues, it uses a wide array of props and a full symphony.

While expansions to the loading area are awaiting a commitment from Duke Energy to move its substation away from the building, Corl said a greater reason not to pursue the Broadway option was that Broadway shows are very lucrative. So, the highest and best use of the Broadway would be for that kind of show, and this would likely displace smaller, community acts like the Asheville Symphony and school productions.

A more appealing option, the Patron-Driven, would cost $130–$150 million. While it would not be able to accommodate Broadway productions, it could handle cirque performances and musicals. Corl said this would probably be the best option for the Asheville Symphony and touring symphonies as well. Like the Broadway, it would have a raised ceiling and a squarer theater space for better acoustics.

The Raked Floor would leave the auditorium as-is, replace the seating, and include a few repairs here and there. It would cost $105–$125 million, but it didn’t capture the imagination of members of council. Councilwoman Maggie Ullman proposed using this as a fallback position should the city be unable to get sufficient philanthropic support for the Patron-Driven.

Ullman said council would review a more comprehensive public facilities assessment at their next worksession. The city was interested in pursuing bonds for housing and other matters. She wanted to get the big picture before prioritizing funding needs, and then pursue partnerships to help pay for some initiatives. Manheimer cautioned others on the dais against getting too hopeful about sources of funding, as recent referenda had been failing across the state.

Asked by Councilwoman Kim Roney if he had considered privatizing the venue, Corl said it would be difficult because the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium is linked to the civic center arena and the library, which are publicly owned. Roney also wanted to know why the auditorium was not hosting more hip-hop, rhythm and blues, and soul. Corl replied that about eight or nine promoters had attempted this and lost a lot of money. The same happened with jazz concerts. Roney requested supporting data to explain this to the community.

Council was reminded to focus on making Thomas Wolfe Auditorium fully functional and low-maintenance again. Corl explained that the venue was now operating at reduced capacity to accommodate repairs for the third time in five years. In 2018, the balcony had to be closed for fire escape issues, and that affected two events. Then, just before the COVID shutdown, the heating system stopped working. “Nobody noticed,” because venues couldn’t open anyway.

Then, in May, during the finale of the Asheville Symphony with Béla Fleck, one of the auditorium’s three air conditioning units blew. After that, management tried to keep the venue cool with the two remaining units and supplemental equipment. Then, on July 3, it got so hot that the two good units broke down during a show, subjecting guests to an indoor temperature of 88 degrees Fahrenheit with a relative humidity over 80%. Following that, shows were canceled or moved to other venues.