Asheville City Council voted 6-1 on Tuesday night to accept a bid from Harrah’s Cherokee casino and resort for the naming rights to the city’s civic center.
The center has been known as the U.S. Cellular Center since 2011, when the city for the first time ever sold naming rights to a public building. That name will change to Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville beginning on Jan. 1, 2020, when the current deal runs out.
The decision ended weeks of community debate about the name. Some residents urged City Council to reject the association with the gambling enterprise about two hours west of Asheville. Others urged council to take the offer, which was significantly larger than the U.S. Cellular bid, the only other bid on the table.
Tuesday’s vote also served to further propel planning to renovate the center’s aging Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, a 2,500-seat auditorium that ranks as one of the city’s signature music and performing arts venues. The city earlier this year hired a consultant to study a complete renovation, estimated to cost about $40 million, while civic center officials are working with another consultant to formulate a plan to raise private funding.
The Harrah’s bid will bring the civic center $2.5 million for an initial 5-year agreement, as well as an immediate $750,000 to help pay for the installation of a video board and other “fan friendly” amenities. The bid has a mutually agreeable 5-year extension that brought the total package to a value of $5.75 million over 10 years.
U.S. Cellular proposed an initial 3-year term at $516,773. A mutually agreeable 2-year extension brought the value of their offer to $878,745. If attendance bonuses are met, the total 5-year term value of the bid increases to $922,682.
City Council comments
Councilwoman Julie Mayfield was the lone vote against selling naming rights to Harrah’s Cherokee. Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler made the motion to go with Harrah’s Cherokee, and Councilman Keith Young seconded.
Mayfield, in staking out her opposition to the Harrah’s name, said the name “is synonymous with gambling and is not consistent” with Asheville’s brand as a progressive city that celebrates the environment, arts, mountain culture, music, local entrepreneurship and craft beer. Asheville’s connection to the beer industry was forged through its excellence in the craft of beer-making, Mayfield noted.
“It’s not about drinking,” Mayfield said. “Asheville has created the culture around beer cause it is a craft. It is a fundamentally different thing to be Beer City” than it is to be connected to Harrah’s, she said.
Mayfield’s argument echoed one made by local tourism industry officials, who circulated a memo stating that having Harrah’s name on the civic center would hurt Asheville’s brand and potentially lure tourists away from Asheville and out to Cherokee. Mayfield sits on the Buncombe County Tourism Authority’s board as City Council’s liaison to that entity. She said her vote had nothing to do with her connection to the TDA.
Councilman Young countered that if tourism officials were opposed to the Harrah’s name, they should have submitted a bid of their own. And Young addressed Mayfield’s argument regarding Asheville’s craft beer association.
“There is no moral superiority on what Asheville’s brand is,” Young said.
“We can play it all we want that beer is this great thing we have in this community, and its morally superior to gambling,” he continued, then went on to read a series of statistics about drinking and drunken driving he said he gathered from Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“To have naming rights for a venue is about money,” Young said. “It’s about being able to put our facilities in good working conditions so we can continue to have” events such as the Southern Conference Basketball Tournament, FedCup tennis and more at the civic center.
Mayor Esther Manheimer said the city was lucky to have two bids to consider. “We are not Atlanta or Seattle or Denver,” she reminded the audience, adding that a public facility like a civic center, golf course or nature center requires a taxpayer subsidy to operate. “They all cost money.”
Manheimer said she was “pleasantly surprised to see how many emails in support of Harrah’s we have seen.” She added that “Asheville you continue to surprise me. You’re always keeping it real.”
Vice Mayor Wisler, who made the motion to accept Harrah’s, ticked off her reasons for support: the Harrah’s bid will help with the renovation of Thomas Wolfe Auditorium; the name will not confuse visitors; Harrah’s already actively advertises in Asheville and that’s caused no ill effects; and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, with Harrah’s, has been generous in donating money to to many Asheville nonprofits.
Eight people spoke during the public comment period of the naming rights discussion, which began at 8:50 p.m. Tuesday night. (The City Council meeting started at 5 p.m. and included a long public comment period about the city’s proposed 2019-2020 fiscal year budget.)
All but two of the speakers said they were against the Harrah’s name. Representatives of both U.S. Cellular and Harrah’s Cherokee gave brief presentations about their organizations.
Dennis Justice, a Fletcher resident who was once active in Asheville when the civic center was home to the Asheville Smoke professional hockey team, urged City Council to stick with U.S. Cellular. That company supported the center when it was much worse off – it has seen some $14 million in renovations since 2011 – and should be honored for that.
“Please for the love of good stick with US Cellular,” Justice said.
Paul Van Heden, a Montford resident who about a decade ago was actively pushing the city to improve its bus system, said he spent time in Las Vegas, where he saw firsthand how casinos feed off people’s addiction.
“It is wrong to accept money from an organization that unapologetically feeds off addiction,” Van Heden said.
Barney Bryant, the founder and owner of B.B. Barnes, a 31-year-old garden center that’s an institution in south Asheville, told City Council he would be “be glad to write you a check” so it could disregard the Harrah’s offer. Casinos destroy families, he said.
“In my heart, I’m just like, ‘We’re making a mistake to let money buy us.’ I want to recommend that we stay with U.S. Cellular and we promote green, cool Asheville and what it represents,” Bryant said.