Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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Naming rights for Asheville’s civic center, now named the US Cellular Center, will be up for bid soon. Here’s the breakdown:

The first deal: Asheville City Council entered into the current naming rights deal with the US Cellular Center in 2011. The 7-year deal, with options, gave the city $1.3 million, which it put toward much needed center renovations. It was the first time the city had awarded naming rights to a public facility.

Criticisms of that first deal: Some residents criticized the city for allowing a corporate name to be attached to one of the city’s central gathering places. Others said city officials should have pushed for more money. Still others complained that the process for awarding the naming rights wasn’t public enough. Officials at the time said US Cellular Center officials came to them seeking a deal.

Timeline: The new contract will take effect Jan. 1, 2020. An upcoming public information meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 26 at the banquet hall of the US Cellular Center. That will be hosted by the Asheville Civic Center Commission, and will be a chance for the public to hear about the naming rights process. Once bids are in, the commission will make a recommendation to Asheville City Council, which will make the final decision.

A central meeting place: The US Cellular Center is home to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium and the Arena. It hosts dozens of events each year, from trade shows and concerts to sporting events and corporate meeting events. It has an annual operating budget of about $3 million that is subsidized by taxpayers’ dollars. That subsidy, reported at about $400,000 in 2015 according to an Asheville Citizen-Times report, has been dwindling in recent years following renovations, increased usage and the 2012 hiring of its crack general manager, Chris Corl, whom city officials credit with much of the center’s turn-around.

Early interest: Four entities have already expressed interest in acquiring naming rights to the center, according to Corey Atkins, chairman of the Asheville Civic Center Commission. “I hope that number doubles or tripes,” Atkins told his colleagues at their monthly meeting on Tuesday.

Growth and renovation: The civic center, which opened in 1975, has seen nearly $13 million in renovations following the inking of the first naming rights deal and a concerted effort on the part of city officials to repair the center. That effort followed years of hand-wringing about the future of the civic center, and an effort by a group of residents to raise money for a new Asheville performing arts center, an effort that’s gone nowhere.

Addressing the need at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium: The 2,430-seat Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, named for the city’s famous native son and writer, is its own aging entity within the US Cellular Center complex. The auditorium needs a major overhaul of its acoustics, which could cost millions. A new naming rights deal could provide critical funding to kickstart this project, which has been kicked around for several years now.

More on growth: Here are a few more stats from Atkins, comparing the 2011 civic center operations to today: 50 more events a year now; average event attendance increased by more than 30,000; a 500 percent increase in Ticketmaster ticket sales. Marcia Hart, the booking manager/events administrator at the US Cellular Center, said that while the US Cellular Center may not get the some of the big-time events of that other venues in the region do, the US Cellular Center ranks has one of the busiest venues of its kind in the Southeast.

The new deal’s potential revenue: With all the growth and renovation, the city is in a much stronger position to increase how much it can seek for naming rights, and for landing a company the city really wants to partner with, Akins said, without putting any number on it.

More about that partnership: A subcommittee of the Asheville Civic Center Commission has come up with a preliminary list of “ideals” that it wants to see in the new agreement, Atkins said. The committee wants a company that is “socially and culturally compatible” with the city; a company that won’t micromanage the details of the deal; a company that can sign on to a longer-term deal, such as a straight 10-year agreement; a company that can assist with improvements to the customer experience at the civic center; and a company that can help leverage its own marketing and advertising relationships to help the venue.

Questions about “compatibility”: Will city officials keep it local, by awarding naming rights to a local company? Which will the city place more value on: the deal’s bottom line total dollars, or the ideal of a like-minded partnership, the choosing a company that falls more in line with the culture of the city? “It’s definitely a balance,” Atkins said.

Examples around N.C.: Raleigh has Red Hat Amphitheater in its downtown, named after the maker of open-source middleware, which has its corporate headquarters in Raleigh. Charlotte has the Bojangles Coliseum sports center, named after the fast food restaurant chain which has its corporate headquarters there. The North Carolina A&T campus in Greensboro recently sold the naming rights of its football stadium to BB&T bank, which is based in Winston-Salem and has its name on the football stadium at Wake Forest University, a ballpark in downtown Winston-Salem and two other sports complexes in the Winston-Salem area.

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

  • 1

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