Should one of Asheville’s most well-loved, and some would say well-worn, public spaces be overhauled? Or should private donors and taxpayers invest in a brand new performing arts space?
It’s a debate that’s shaping up as city officials await results of a consultant’s study on the cost of renovating Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, while proponents of building a new, state-of-the-art performing arts center push forward with their plan.
Thomas Wolfe Auditorium has served for decades as one of the city’s central public meeting spots, hosting everything from high school graduations to world-class musicians. All the wear is starting to show, and various city groups agree the auditorium is in need of repairs. One group, in particular, is eager for the remodeling – the Asheville Symphony Orchestra – which wants to see the auditorium’s acoustics improved for better listening.
But the effort to rehab Thomas Wolfe Auditorium collides squarely with the goals of the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts, a local non-profit that has, since the mid-2000s, pushed for a separate “state of the art” center to host organizations such as the Asheville Symphony, as well as plays and concerts.
The potential Thomas Wolfe overhaul is part of a long-term effort to update the U.S. Cellular Center and its facilities for a new era. Asheville City Council has already pumped tens of thousands of dollars into the U.S. Cellular Center’s arena, especially to attract and serve the Southern Conference basketball tournament. The city has sold naming rights (the center used to be known simply as the Asheville Civic Center) and made improvements to center’s upstairs banquet hall, as well as its main entrance and lobby.
Meantime, the performing arts center group has raised considerable funds — a report last year put the amount from private donors at over $4 million — and in 2008 received a nod from Asheville City Council reserving a potential site just South of City Hall. (That site has since been dropped.) While performing arts center representatives stress that the new facility would coexist with current ones, such a proposal, they note, will require government support.
Indeed, government priorities and funds are limited and in recent years city government has increasingly sided with renovating and updating the existing center rather than putting resources towards building a new performing hall. The U.S. Cellular Center is owned and operated by the city of Asheville and while it receives revenue from the events there, it also receives significant backing from taxpayers’ dollars.
At the heart of the matter is a divide between different points of view on how best to deal with facilities for arts and entertainment in Asheville. On one side is a view that believes Asheville’s efforts need to shift to a more modern facility for a more modern time, building something better suited to the quality of musicians and performers the city can attract. The other view would put such a change, if it happens, further in the future, prioritizing updating the current space as a more realistic option and one necessary to keep Asheville an entertainment destination.
The differences go back nearly a decade, to a time when the fate of the Civic Center was a matter of heated debate.
The questions of yesteryear
A decade ago, the fate of the aging Asheville Civic Center was a matter of considerable debate. The issue had been the topic of multiple reports and public forums since the mid-1990s, and it was finally coming to a head.
Council member Jan Davis was involved in many of those discussions.
“By that time the facility had waned, they’d not contributed new money to the building,” he remembers. “It had gotten in disrepair.”
A 2002 report suggested the arena should be renovated and a newer performance center built, with Thomas Wolfe turned back into a flat-floored arena space. The report claimed a renovation of the old auditorium simply wasn’t worth any more time or money. Davis remembers that some of the ideas had merit, but funding didn’t emerge. The Civic Center continued to languish.
Out of this environment, supporters of a separate performance center organized in 2004 to form a non-profit. The group started raising money and eventually secured a site for a new, modern facility.
“That was the inception, the genesis for my group,” performing arts center President Michael Stoll remembers. From the beginning, it was intended as a public-private partnership.
“We have always worked and met with the city, different City Council members, with the county,” he says. “We believe this needs to be a cooperative effort.”
Council revisited the topic of what to do with the center and Davis chaired a task force with representatives from a number of non-profits and organizations, including the Performing Arts Center nonprofit, to decide a course of action.
“At the end of the day, it recommended that we improve what we have and Council took that directive,” Davis says. Shortly after, Council approved funds to repair the arena roof and began the process of securing partnerships to secure funds for further improvements. The following years would see more renovations.
The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, which seats 2,431, is the oldest part of the center. The original auditorium dates back to 1939, though has been extensively renovated several times since. The rest of the Civic Center was complete in 1974 and encompassed the auditorium, whose foyer was renovated in the 1990s.
The Performing Arts Center secured a $1 million grant in 2007 and the following year, Council approved a site near City Hall for it. That same year, the recession hit. Limited budgets, and limited ambitions, ensued for non-profits and governments alike.
With Asheville’s economy clicking on all cylinders again, advocates of a new performance center are pressing ahead, as are backers of a renovation plan for the auditorium.
As Asheville’s economy thawed out, the year opens with advocates of a performance center and the possible renovation of the Thomas Wolfe pushing forward.
A Jan. 23 Asheville Citizen-Times editorial from the performing arts center board asserted that municipalities around the state have grasped the importance of a modern venue, but that the concept had yet to find root in Asheville.
“As a result, Asheville is now the only top-ten city without such a center, built to be a performance center,” the editorial read. “From a competitive point of view, Asheville is now at a disadvantage, despite our tradition as an entertainment and arts destination.”
As that opinion piece hit the streets, the city was embarking on a study, complete with the involvement of a task force first convened two years ago, to see what could be done about the Thomas Wolfe. As an experiment, recent symphony performances have featured a temporarily built-out stage bringing the action closer to the audience.
“We’ve done a nice job renovating the arena,” Davis says. But with the emphasis on bringing events and repair there, the Thomas Wolfe hadn’t received as much focus. “It’s still a 1950s building, though it’s been rehabbed many times and it looks nice.”
As with the other center renovations, Davis notes, the city’s looking at a range of different options and what might be feasible given the funds available. For example, while there are issues, he notes, with the rope and mechanical systems, the city has found that the building’s structure and roof are in better shape, and hold more weight, than expected.
Stoll says that while his organization has nothing against the Civic Center, in a city that’s rapidly gaining more attention for its arts, it’s time for something new. Asheville, he asserts, will be better off turning the Thomas Wolfe back into a flat-floor arena as the 2002 report suggested, and putting more of its energy toward something more modern.
“Just to address the basic issues of acoustics and stage size are significant undertakings,” Stoll says of renovating the Thomas Wolfe. “We sincerely believe there’s a point of diminishing return in investing in the Thomas Wolfe and that the city and the public are better off to invest in a new center that provides you with all of the capabilities as neighboring cities in Greenville or Greensboro. That’s something we’re lacking here – a multi-functional facility that can do different types of performances.”
A study the group had done last year, Stoll claims, further backs up the need to opt for a newer, more modern center, just as the older studies had concluded. But he also notes that “we’re very interested to see the outcome” of the city’s current study on the shape of Thomas Wolfe.
The group is still searching for sites and has some good candidates, he claims, adding: “I’ll be honest with you that they really won’t come to fruition until the city and the county agree that this is a viable thing, that the city needs a new performance center.”
Stoll says he believes that local government officials will be receptive. The group is talking extensively with both donors and government officials. “There is activity, but this really has to be a public/private cooperation. It’s a major investment, no doubt, but it will have a major impact.”
“The Civic Center has served the city very well,” Stoll emphasizes. “We just believe we’re missing opportunities to bring entertainment to Asheville with the Civic Center as it stands today.”
Davis says he believes performing arts center advocates have some good ideas, but “even if everything goes perfect, it’s going to be a number of years before the new building will be built.”
In the meantime, “as a community there is a desire for stage shows and music and we’ve got to have a place to do that. We might as well take care of the building we’ve got for the moment.”
“It will take a while to determine, structurally, what can be done,” with the Thomas Wolfe, he says. “And then we start looking for partners and how we accomplish doing that. I’m not sure there’s a huge amount of will on Council to spend a lot of money from the general fund on this kind of renovation. There are lot of priorities ahead of it, though I think it’s known that we’ve got a desire and need in the community. We’ve got a great symphony for a city this size. There’s a lot of demand.”
Despite its age and issues, he notes, the Thomas Wolfe has continued to attract high-profile acts. It is a major center for the city’s arts, and could do so even more with some improvements, he adds.
According to Davis, “ours is probably a more realistic situation in that we have a building, we know that it’s functional, we know that it can be made better. It’s just a matter of how much it takes to make it better and who we can get on board to help us do that.”
David Forbes is a local journalist and editor of the Asheville Blade, a reader-supported site for sharp news and views.