The Asheville Downtown Commission has called a special meeting this week to consider making a recommendation on the controversial issue of naming rights for the Asheville civic center.
U.S. Cellular and Harrah’s Cherokee Casino have submitted formal bids for the center, which has been named the U.S. Cellular Center since 2011. Harrah’s is offering the city more money for the naming rights, but some community members, including members of Asheville’s tourism industry, are opposed to having the name of a casino on the civic center.
The Downtown Commission talked about the issue at its May 10 meeting and briefly considered a motion. But commissioners said they wanted more information and then discussed holding an unusual “email vote” that was later determined to be improper. No vote was held.
The Downtown Commission is now scheduled to meet at 3 p.m. Thursday in the banquet hall of the U.S. Cellular Center to discuss whether to make a recommendation to Asheville City Council. The commission serves as an advisory board to council, and its decisions are not binding.
Another city advisory board, the Asheville Civic Center Commission, voted 3-2 in April to stick with U.S. Cellular.
Asheville City Council has the final say on naming rights and is scheduled to decide between two formal proposals at its meeting next week.
Here are the two proposals: U.S. Cellular is offering $516,773 for an initial 3-year term. A mutually agreeable 2-year extension would bring 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.) Harrah’s Cherokee is offering $2.5 million for an initial 5-year agreement. A 5-year mutually agreeable extension would bring their offer to $5 million. Harrah’s is offering an additional $750,000 to help pay for the installation of a video board and other “fan-friendly” amenities, for a bid totaling $5.75 million over 10 years.
In 2011, the city and U.S. Cellular agreed to a 7-year deal worth $1.3 million for civic center naming rights. The 2011 agreement was the first time the city sold naming rights to the facility.
At the Downtown Commission meeting earlier this month, Commissioner Andrew Fletcher made a motion that the commission support the Civic Center Commission recommendation to stick with U.S. Cellular.
Commissioner Kimberly Hunter, who is also on the Asheville Civic Center Commission, seconded the motion. Hunter told the Downtown Commission that the Civic Center Commission opposed the Harrah’s name. That vote, taken in early April, was 3-2 in favor of U.S. Cellular’s bid, with Civic Center Commissioner Greg Duff recusing himself and Civic Center Commission Chairman Corey Atkins absent. Hunter herself left that Civic Center Commission meeting early and did not vote. The Civic Center Commission has nine members.
Hunter told the Downtown Commission that some civic center board members were frustrated that the name would still be considered. She said that casinos negatively affect social determinants of health, the conditions in the places where people live, work and play. She added that minutes from the April Civic Center Commission meeting inaccurately reflected the discussion.
Downtown Commissioner Dane Barrager said that money generated by Harrah’s in Cherokee has had a huge, positive impact on local schools and hospitals there. Barrager said that while he said he’s not necessarily a fan of casinos, Harrah’s has had a beneficial impact on the Cherokee community.
Downtown Commission Chairwoman Sage Turner said the two competing bids represent a big difference in dollars at a time when the city, and the civic center, need the funding. Turner wondered if the naming rights money could be used for another city purpose, such as funding its public transit system.
Downtown Commissioner Ruth Summers said she wanted more information on the Civic Center Commission discussion.