A group that’s been working for a decade on building a new performing arts center in Asheville may have an exciting new plan, Asheville City Councilman Brian Haynes told the Asheville Civic Center Commission last week.

“It does seem like they may have something concrete in the works, which I’m not supposed to say,” Haynes told the commission during its regular monthly meeting.

“If it happens, I think we will have something to discuss. I think it is probably going to happen soon, but they feel like it needs to be coordinated with the city,” Haynes said. “They want to know where city stands.”

The update from Haynes was of particular interest to the commission, which has been working on a plan to fund renovations to Thomas Wolfe Auditorium for several years now. The Thomas Wolfe auditorium opened in 1975 after two years of renovation to the existing municipal auditorium, which opened in 1940. It is one of Asheville’s central public meeting spots, hosting everything from high school graduations to world-class musicians.

But the use has taken its toll and last year, city officials agreed to a $60,000 structural and acoustical study of the auditorium. The Asheville Symphony Orchestra, in particular, wants to see improvements to the Thomas Wolfe acoustics.

The results of that study were returned earlier this year. (Read the reports via links at bottom of post.)  It offers plans for a “moderate” and a “major” renovation, which range from about $25 million to $40 million. (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. The city has spent tens of thousands of dollars on that effort in recent years.)

The effort to renovate the auditorium clashes with the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts (now The Performance Center in Asheville), a group that once floated an $80 million plan to build a brand new center in downtown. The group has since scaled its grand vision back to a plan that proposes to build a new center about the same size as the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, at about the same cost as auditorium renovations.

Thus, when Haynes offered his performing arts center update to the commission, members were interested to know more. Chairman Joel Storrow asked Haynes who he met with, but Haynes said he didn’t remember their names.

Commioner Carol Ann Lydon asked Haynes why the performing arts center group thought it so important to have the city’s support. Haynes reported that there’s a “third party involved that wants the city to say ‘we like this idea.'”

Haynes added that, from an Asheville City Council point of view, he didn’t think it was “an either-or” choice between the city supporting a new performing arts center and supporting renovations to Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.

Commissioner Bill Jones expressed his frustration at the Haynes update, saying he’s been “hearing the same broken record about the performing arts center” for years.

“We decided to move ahead on our own because they didn’t seem to be interested in the Thomas Wolfe game.  Now they’re coming to you, Brian, the new guy on the block to see if they can sell you” on their idea,” Jones said. “It’s just sort of frustrating. We’re beating the same bush with this performing arts group. They’re so pie-in-the-sky. We’ve tried to work with them, but they don’t want to play ball with us.”

Jones said the new performing arts center sounded like a competitor to Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Sam Powers, director of the city’s office of economic development, said that wouldn’t necessarily be the case. He added that “at this point, it sounds like they would reach out to the mayor and we would expect to hear from the mayor.”

Lydon reminded her fellow commissioners that the group had talked about doing an economic impact study of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, and about launching a public relations campaign to educate the public about the historical significance of the auditorium. Powers said those efforts can be pursued at “the staff level.”

Thomas Wolfe Report Costings

Thomas Wolfe Report Structure

Thomas Wolfe Report Acoustics

Correction April 11: Two members of the Asheville Civic Center Commission – Joel Storrow and Carol Ann Lydon – were misidentified. I apologize for the error.

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4 Comments

  1. Unless something comparable to the Peace Center in Greenville, SC is built, the Broadway road shows and well-known entertainers won’t even perform here. The rendition shown doesn’t look any better than the current set up of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium which has lousy acoustics and seating. I agree with several of the other posts. What HAS happened to the past plans to build a new facility with convention facilities? I recall a huge push for it several years ago. It’s such a waste of funds if we continue to put band aids on the old and tired Wolfe facility.

  2. The Real World says:

    The image above looks like a good design. I really dislike the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. A performance hall that is rectangular in shape with the stage at one of the NARROW ends — what?

    Unless you pay up for the best seats in the front half you pretty much have a lousy seat. Forget it. The Diana Wortham and ACT are both good set-ups with basically no bad seats.

  3. What ever happened to the plan of building a newer structure that would house a convention center-sized music venue and multi-purpose facility somewhere outside of downtown? Who recalls this plan? It was a discussion going on about 5-6 years ago when everyone was upset by the cost of roof repairs on the US Cellular Center (or whatever its called now)…

  4. This project seems to be languishing and I would hate to see it fall victim to the same mismanagement that made the Pack Square park renovations take so long and cost so much more than estimated.

    That said, the Thomas Wolfe may be “historic” but it is (1) so inadequate from the start, (2) was already modified so much in 1975 that its original historic character is already largely lost, and (3) the acoustic and structural reports show that further modifications to even get close to meeting modern standards would be so significant as to make its historic origins completely indescernible.

    The options, as I see them:
    (1) Demolish and start from scratch, rebuilding onsite
    (2) Build a new facility elsewhere, downgrading the Thomas Wolfe to some sort of flat-floor facility much closer to its original historic 1939 configuration, and use it for uses other than performing arts where acoustics aren’t as big of a concern (such as conventions, banquets, conferences, minor sporting events (college wrestling tournaments? gymnastics?), etc)
    (3) Build a new facility elsewhere, demolish the Thomas Wolfe, and sell the land for development

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