If you ever want to make yourself a little bit insane — and who among us doesn’t need that? — peruse some old newspaper clippings about Asheville and its history with auditoriums.
Because what comes around absolutely goes around in this town, and by that I mean desperate calls for a performing arts center, or a renovation of the existing facility, or a replacement of what we have.
Or the place just becoming unusable.
Here’s one gem from the Asheville Citizen that had a particular sense of urgency:
“An auditorium that will hold 3,000 people, that will be easy of entrance and exit, that has good acoustic properties, will give a place where festivals can be held at less expense to music lovers, and thus insure a much larger attendance.”
The writer continued, almost breathlessly, if I may infer from the tone:
“Now, this afternoon is the time to begin the movement for an auditorium. The iron is hot; let us strike while it can be wielded without reheating. And let us pound away until we get the auditorium that will insure to Asheville an annual Music Festival with the best music at low prices, so that Asheville’s Music Festival will become a permanent institution not only of this city, but of Western North Carolina.”
Yes! Yes, my favorite writer of purple prose, let’s get an auditorium!
Sadly, that was penned March 23, 1900, in the Asheville Times, with the headline, “City Must Have an Auditorium.”
The city did indeed build a nice auditorium, which then burned down in October 1903.
It was partially rebuilt and operated by the city until 1931, when it was condemned as a potential safety hazard. The auditorium stood abandoned until its demolition in 1937, according to Transformthewolfe.com.
The city then built the Municipal Auditorium, which opened in 1940 as a flat-floored venue for basketball games and wrestling matches. It was renovated, renamed the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, and reopened in 1975.
Now it’s closed again, this time because the long-waning air conditioning gave up the ghost. Sure, the city has conducted basic maintenance, but let’s be honest: The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium is a dump.
The paint is peeling. The seats are uncomfortable and occasionally prone to catching on fire because of faulty aisle lighting. Bricks have tumbled from the wall onto the stage.
The green room and dressing rooms for performers are an embarrassment. A plumbing problem near the loading dock requires equipment to be hand-loaded into the venue from the sole loading dock. You can see the dug-up sewer line out back.
The door for performers to enter the green room is about half the size of a normal door, resulting in a lot of banged celebrity heads over the years. The only way to those broken AC units in the attic is through a tiny door elevated about 20 feet off the stage and accessible only via a steel ladder.
And we all know the acoustics are terrible.
So I sat in borderline insane amusement last Monday as ArtsAVL conducted a panel discussion about the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in the adjoining Harrah’s Cherokee Center-Asheville. The air conditioning there was also out, albeit being fixed, so it was a nice stuffy 80 degrees inside.
Excellent way to make your case, Mister Corl.
That would be Chris Corl, director of community and regional entertainment facilities for the City of Asheville, who hosted a tour of the Wolfe Auditorium before the discussion. Corl is trying mightily to get a fix in place, and he detailed several plans to address the problems.
But as a guy who’s been covering this area since 1995, I had a nagging feeling I’d heard all of this before.
Maybe it was in a Citizen Times guest editorial by David Stewart that ran Sept. 27, 2005. Stewart, a retired education administrator, wrote colorfully about his tour of the facility:
“Ever tried to pin jelly to the wall? That’s what I found myself trying to do after spending the better part of three hours at a recent forum designed to enlighten the public as to the sputtering process of deciding what to do about Asheville’s Civic Center. Everyone seems to agree that we need to address the problem of an aging — make that geriatric and on life-support – Civic Center, but focused action is lacking.”
Amen, brother! He continued:
“I joined a guided tour of the present facility and saw firsthand the scope of the problem. Peeling paint and water-damaged plaster are only symptoms of more basic difficulties. The present layout and infrastructure of the arena, exhibit halls and Thomas Wolfe Auditorium do not adequately support present programming.”
Yes, yes. Tell me more:
“Especially shocking is the inadequacy of the stage area in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. There is virtually no room backstage and what there is of it calls to mind the Black Hole of Calcutta. The door from the only loading dock is so small that most traveling performing companies can unload only a portion of the props that support their appearance. We need a fix — the right fix and a fast fix.”
Fast forward to Aug. 21, 2023 and the Town Hall hosted by Arts AVL. We got the tour and an update from Corl. You may recall that he proposed a $100 million-plus overhaul of the Thomas Wolfe in 2020, right before the pandemic hit.
It went nowhere. But at least he had a vision.
Anyway, the tour showed me that the door to the green room is still small. The ramp for hauling in equipment backstage is still absurdly steep and requires a winch to pull gear in. The side seats in the balcony still face what used to be the basketball court, not the stage.
The Asheville Symphony has left the building. It’s now playing venues from the First Baptist Church in Asheville to the Brevard Music Center.
Corl told us they anticipate a drop in gross operating revenue this year of $1.2 million, a 22 percent reduction from last fiscal year. That translates to an estimated reduction of the facility’s annual economic impact to Asheville and Buncombe County of $20.5 million, a 27 percent drop.
Very Well Studied
Perhaps my favorite slide of his presentation was the one titled, “Very Well Studied & Evaluated.” Hey, Corl is nothing if not diplomatic.
Over the past 20 years, the city has commissioned six conceptual design or feasibility studies, and three ancillary and operational evaluations.
“Similar recommendations,” Corl noted, meaning a need to address the infrastructure, safety issues, rigging, loading, acoustics, lighting, audio, bathrooms, seats, patron flow, and more.
“Each study showed consistently increasing expense estimates,” the slide stated.
Really? I had no idea!
Corl also detailed the plans on the table now:
- Broadway show capable facility/Major Renovations & Expansions — Estimated 2023 project cost: $140 million to $160 million. Estimated 2028 project cost: $183 million to $198 million.
- Acoustic-Driven/Significant Renovations — Estimated 2023 project cost: $100 million to $120 million. Estimated 2028 Project Cost: $130 million to $150 million.
- Improved Raked (sloped) Floor Arrangement — Estimated 2023 project cost: $80 million to $100 million. Estimated 2028 project cost: $105 million to $125 million.
- Multi-Purpose Flat Floor Arrangement — Estimated 2023 project cost: $68 million to $88 million. Estimated 2028 project cost: $90 million to $110 million.
- Infrastructure and Code Update — Estimated 2023 project cost: $33 million to $38 million. Estimated 2028 project cost: $42 million to $52 million.
Corl also noted that any project is going to be major, and that one of the main questions residents have to ask is, “What does the community want the room to be?”
That, my man, is the question Asheville has dillydallied over since about 1980, when it collectively realized, “You know, the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium is still kind of a dump.”
Guest columnist Stewart was all over this in 2005, saying one of the actions leaders needed to take was “to decide what kind of building is required.” He favored the recommendation of the 2002 Heery International consulting firm’s plan to renovate the main arena (which was done), and build a new performing arts center behind it (which obviously was not done).
A big impact
If anyone doubted how important a performing arts center is, Asheville Symphony Executive Director Daniel Crupi noted that the symphony has a $2.5 million budget, an annual economic impact of between $6 million and $8 million annually, employs more than 140 professional musicians from the area in a given season, and reaches 40,000 to 50,000 patrons per season.
“I do not think it is exaggerating to say that every single number I just cited is in jeopardy with the closure of Thomas Wolfe,” Crupi said. “It is an existential crisis for the symphony. We can weather this sort of storm for a couple of years, but if it drags on in perpetuity, the symphony is going to have a really hard time making things work.”
So, here we are, where we were back in 1900, with a pressing need for a music venue.
Victoria “Vic” Isley, Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority President & CEO, pointed out that tourism-related sales in restaurants, entertainment and hotels are already down 10 percent to 20 percent this summer.
“And now that the Thomas Wolfe auditorium has failed due to lack of basic maintenance is a double whammy for our businesses and livelihoods,” Isley said.
Let me pause here to note that Corl said they have addressed basic maintenance issues over the years to keep the place running and open. It’s clear to me, though, the city has made no serious commitment to conduct real maintenance — the kind with some vision of the equipment lasting or being improved.
No New Building
When the panel discussion came to Mayor Esther Manheimer, I braced myself for more déjà vu.
Manheimer was elected to council in 2009 and first elected mayor in 2013, so it’s not like she’s a Thomas Wolfe neophyte. She noted that the idea of a new, freestanding performing arts center is just about dead, but not from lack of effort — the city proffered land next to City Hall for a facility, and a private group worked on fundraising and logistics for two decades.
The Thomas Wolfe is downtown and already has a parking deck next door, and building new could be even more costly. So, Manheimer said, renovation of the existing building is the clear path now.
“I think for now the stars have aligned, (and) it has become clear that a performing arts center or a performing arts space might happen one day, but it’s not going to happen immediately,” Manheimer said. In short, she said, all these factors have the city “firmly landing on a place where we’re looking at renovations of the Thomas Wolfe.”
She pointed to some of the catalysts for that revelation.
“One is that we just did this McCormick Field (deal), and I can’t emphasize enough to you how sort of monumental that is, to bring lots of partners together to do this significant multimillion-dollar project in Asheville,” Manheimer said. “There’s not a lot of, or any other, examples you could point to where that’s happened in recent memory. So we just figured out how to do it. Our muscles are really strong about how to make that happen.”
I groaned a little at this point. I mean, this is not rocket science, and local forces have collaborated before. The TDA, which funds projects that contribute to tourism and lives off of the occupancy tax, has been funding public projects for two decades.
“I will say that, first and foremost, the Tourism Development Authority is an investment partner with Asheville and Buncombe County,” Isley said a little later in the program. “Since 2001, we’ve invested more than $80 million in lodging tax and tourism-related capital projects. More than half of that has gone to city-owned facilities through grant requests.”
Suddenly, I had Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in my brain, singing in heavenly harmony, “If I had ever been here before I would probably know just what to do. Don’t you?”
But back to the archives.
When the renovated Thomas Wolfe reopened in December 1975, the Citizen Times carried an article about it in which Dr. James P. Parker, president of the Civic Arts Council, remarked, “During the last 20 years, the Civic Arts Council has worked diligently and continually for a civic arts center. It was possible only through the cooperation of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and the City of Asheville.”
Mayor Eugene C. Ochsenreiter “noted that it was Dec. 14, 1971 — one day under three years ago — that voters approved a bond issue making possible the complete remodeling of the auditorium.”
If I had ever been here before on another time around the wheel, I would probably know just how to deal with all of you.
Heck, Stewart was on this 18 years ago in his op/ed:
“First, Buncombe County and Asheville city leaders must make this a joint and bipartisan project. This is not a job that the city can do alone. Second, the area’s state legislative delegation must be brought on board and enlisted to acquire state permission to levy a prepared food and/or lodging tax. Few cities have been able to pull off civic center renovations and maintenance without such levies…”
And I feel like I’ve been here before…Feel like I’ve been here before
So again, while a meal tax never got passed, the TDA and other funding sources have been around for decades, and the city has opted to dither.
The money is not the problem here. It’s the political will and courage to actually take action and spend the money on a renovation, instead of waiting until the structure is unusable.
Anyway, it seems the community has settled on, or for, a renovation. I could debate the wisdom of renovating this 83-year-old pile of falling bricks and tiny doors, but let’s just not go there right now.
Bond Issue Looms
Manheimer was asked about paying for the needed renovations, and she pointed out that the entire city budget this year was in the ballpark of $240 million. So, obviously, this would be a huge project for a city that relies mostly on property taxes for its revenue.
Manheimer also reminded the audience that the city had a large bond referendum in 2016, a $72 million bond obligation for recreation facilities and affordable housing. Manheimer did say later that the city is planning for another bond cycle that will appear on voters’ ballots in 2024.
Clearly, the city and its partners will have to borrow money to get a Thomas Wolfe project done, and then pay it off over a number of years.
The mayor also noted that the TDA can fund projects such as a Thomas Wolfe renovation, but their guidelines limit funding to 50 percent of any project.
For a Thomas Wolfe renovation, the city would be a potential and primary funder, along with the county. Manheimer noted that some county commissioners were present and she took that “as a strong positive signal that we might have a county partnership as well in this project.”
The symphony could also be a contributor, the mayor said, and the venue itself could contribute in future years through its revenues. For example, if you renovate it to be a Broadway-show capable venue, that will generate more money.
Manheimer also cited the recent agreement to provide $37 million in funding for McCormick Field renovations, a deal that includes a nearly $23 million commitment from the TDA over 20 years, as well as sizable contributions from the city, Buncombe County, and the Asheville Tourists.
“I think that, no pun intended, set the stage for us to do the next big project,” Manheimer said.
She added that it’s their civic duty “to provide a forum for people to enjoy the arts, to enjoy one another, to enjoy their community, and also support our economy here in Asheville.”
Yes. Yes, it is. So do it.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.