A column in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium remains unpainted, one of many issues facing the facility. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

I swear I don’t intend to just sit around bashing Asheville’s leaders every week.

But they just make it so easy.

Latest example? The slow-motion train wreck otherwise known as the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Wolfe himself would have protested that this death is taking way too long to unfold, and he wrote novels that were about 5,000 pages long.

Most recently we’ve learned the air conditioning is operating at only 35 percent capacity and struggling to keep the facility, well, cool is not the right word. Maybe “unlike the depths of hell.”

Netting is strung just below the ceiling to keep chunks of it from falling on performers and workers. Harrah’s Cherokee Center–Asheville, of which the auditorium is a part, was formerly known as the U.S. Cellular Center Asheville and the Asheville Civic Center before that, and it’s been having problems during all three tenures.

Donna Bailey, chair of the Civic Center Commission Board, an advisory body appointed by the city, offered a few details via email and in a phone call.

“The loading (area) where 18-wheelers were supposed to get near the stage for unloading, we can only use forklifts, and can’t have two within 15 feet of one another for fear of them falling through the floor of the Civic Center because it has been declared unsafe,” she told me. “And hand trucks now have to be used to move equipment in and out, one at a time.”

As they say in those breathless TV ads, “But wait, there’s more!”

“A partial closure of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium will take place for the upcoming six-nine months,” Chris Corl, director of Community & Regional Entertainment Facilities for the City of Asheville, told City Manager Debra Campbell in a June 16 memo. “(We’re) expecting up to a $1.9 million reduction in total gross revenues compared to the previous fiscal year.”

He expects total repair costs on the HVAC system to come “close to $1.4 million.”

Acts are looking to book shows somewhere besides the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium because of the facility’s woes. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

The symphony has bailed on the Thomas Wolfe

Already, acts are looking to book shows elsewhere. 

The Asheville Symphony sent out an update to its patrons last week about the problems and how they’ll affect the upcoming 2023-2024 season, noting, “Parts to repair the HVAC system are not readily available, and Harrah’s Cherokee Center-Asheville has let us know that it may not be fully back online for at least nine months.

“The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium will remain open at a limited capacity, with approximately 1,000 seats of the 2,431-seat capacity available,” the symphony update states. “In addition to operating at about half capacity, the audience portion of the venue will be heated and cooled primarily via an HVAC unit that heats and cools the stage, resulting in significant overheating or overcooling of the stage to keep the house regulated.”

Obviously, that’s not ideal for performers, or their instruments, or the audience. Or even Thomas Wolfe, who’s spinning like a jet turbine in his grave at Riverside Cemetery.

With all this in mind, the symphony “has decided to move all shows originally scheduled for the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium to alternate venues for the duration of the season.”

In a column in May questioning why Asheville can’t ever get anything nice built or take care of what it has, I noted the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium opened in 1940 and underwent a major renovation before reopening in 1975.

But it’s been plagued by serious problems for years, including peeling paint, roof leaks, torturous seats, poor acoustics, and inadequate backstage space.

Water damage can be seen on the ceiling of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

Its next door neighbor, the former Civic Center arena, now called the ExploreAsheville.com Arena, which opened in 1974, got a $7 million-plus renovation about a decade ago and is at least hospitable to shows. I saw Robert Plant and Alison Krauss there last week, and while it’s no showplace, the upgrades are noticeable.

Hey, the bathrooms have real tile!

Right before the pandemic hit in early 2020, Corl and the city unveiled an ambitious and, honestly, unrealistic plan to renovate the 2,400 seat Thomas Wolfe, to the tune of $100-million plus. It was pretty fantastical and had an eye-popping budget, but at least Corl and company were trying something and exhibiting a little vision for the city.

‘A reeking disgrace to Asheville’

The auditorium has not aged well in those three years.

I recently had a reader, Martin Dyckman, email me about the facility, which he refers to as the “Thomas Wolfe Vomitorium,” calling it a “reeking (literally) disgrace to Asheville” and a “disservice to the first-class Asheville Symphony.

The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium concession stands are close to the restrooms, creating an unpleasant environment for patrons, some say. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

“The seats are uncomfortable and too closely spaced, the acoustics are grossly inferior, and the rest room facilities are so inadequate and so poorly situated that during intermissions the people standing in queues to use them intersect all across the lobby with people patronizing the refreshment stand, with the odors of coffee, beer and pretzels intermingled with those wafting from the open doors of the restrooms,” he wrote. “Surely Asheville can do better? Or does it even care?”

Hey now, Asheville has cared about this for decades, as another astute reader pointed out to me. She provided a link to this Mountain Xpress story from 2003 regarding the declining Civic Center complex and the potential of using a food and beverage tax to address its issues.

As she noted, we were “literally having an almost identical conversation 20 years ago about how inadequate the Civic Center is.” Several proposals were on the table, including a major overhaul or even a brand new facility.

Once a window, this short door in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium features a warning to “Please Duck.” // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

Are you enjoying that brand new facility? It apparently got built in Greenville, S.C.

My take on the city’s handling of the facility is that it’s management by crisis, I told Bailey in a phone interview.

“I think that’s perfect,” she said. “Until it’s a crisis, they don’t do anything.”

To be clear, Bailey isn’t talking about Corl here, or the folks who actually run the operations and staff events. She’s talking about Asheville’s leadership, including City Council.

She pointed out that the Municipal Golf Course and the Nature Center, both city assets, had to set up nonprofits for fundraising and “to keep the asset flourishing because we know “the city will ignore maintenance until the next crisis.”

“We knew of the HVAC problem months ago, but no funding was available, of course, until a crisis or lawsuit from someone getting hurt,” Bailey told me in an email. 

To be fair, the city has funded some maintenance of the facility, but it’s not enough. The ceiling “is falling in and has been leaking,” Bailey said. And the issue with trucks not being able to unload is because of a sewer pipe that’s collapsing.

The needed HVAC repair is complicated because the big units are located in an attic area that’s not up to OSHA requirements, Bailey said, and “there are contractors who say they won’t touch it.”

“So the infrastructure itself is crumbling and dangerous for people,” Bailey said.

This is costing the city”

The economic impact of the complex is $25 million a year when you consider direct jobs, ticket sales, hotel stays, food and beverage sales, and more, she added.

“This is costing the city an enormous amount of money,” Bailey said of the current Thomas Wolfe meltdown.

In 2016, Bailey said, the city got estimates on repairing and upgrading the whole center, and it came back at about $40 million. 

“And now because of the damage that continues to be done and the infrastructure failure, it’s estimated at closer to $120 million,” Bailey said. “So by doing nothing, the expense is going up and up.”

That’s what managing by crisis looks like.

Corl wants to assure Dyckman and others who share his concerns that they definitely care.

“For years we have been actively maintaining the theater, repairing fixtures, etc., when necessary and when budget is available,” Corl said via email. “Additionally, we’ve been working on trying to find a way to put a financing plan together to successfully renovate the theater.”

Dyckman also mentioned the funding of McCormick Field, which I have mixed emotions about. I know some call it extortion and feel Major League Baseball, or the uber-wealthy DeWine family that owns the team ought to pay more, but I’d also like to see the Tourists stay in business here.

That project involved a $37.5 million price tag and a combined effort from four entities:, the DeWines, Buncombe County, the City of Asheville, and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority.

“I’m quite hopeful that the baseball project is really an opening door for a true renovation of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium,” Corl said. “That project shows that multiple entities can come together to create a model that works for each for a significant project.”

Regarding the Thomas Wolfe, Corl said their vision is for an updated theater that would address all concerns Dyckman raised, and more.

Some patrons say the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium seats are uncomfortable and too close to one another. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

“Triple the restrooms, double the ‘common area’ spaces, on stage and backstage improvements, new seats, the whole nine yards,” Corl said. “I plan to continue pushing forward to find a way to fully upgrade the room as soon as possible.”

That’s great to hear, but all of this also makes me wonder: Should they just tear down the whole complex and start over?

Let’s face it, the ExploreAsheville.com Arena looks a whole lot better after renovations, but it’s still a Soviet-era concrete block atop a rock pile. And the Thomas Wolfe ain’t exactly Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. 

If the city is going to spend tens of millions on renovations, could it be time to start over and build a beautiful new structure that actually meets modern building codes and has all the bells and whistles modern music and drama productions need?

Bailey thinks it might be time to consider a new building. The Thomas Wolfe has limitations on its very steel structure that could inhibit renovations, for one thing, so bringing it up to Broadway touring show standards would be extremely difficult.

Haven’t we seen all of this before?

If it is time to start from scratch, who’s going to actually make it happen?

The long-time reader reminded me we’ve also been there before.

“Anyone remember the ‘Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts’ organization’s attempt from over a decade ago?” she said. “They were established in 2003-2005 to figure out a better solution than our civic center because there is no reason a highly cultural city at the intersection of two major highways shouldn’t be able to host major tours, performances and events.”

We clearly have enough hotels around here to fill up such a place, she noted.

“It looks like that organization, the ‘Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts’ ceased operations in 2017 altogether, so I’m not sure if anything actually came from any of their efforts and millions in donations,” she said. 

If you’re curious, the nonprofit news site Propublica.org has a link detailing that organization’s financials, and it showed net assets in 2017 of $496,010 but nothing after that. By the way, the year before showed net assets of a little over $1 million, and $1.4 million as recently as 2013.


It appears that this effort to put together a private performing arts center went nowhere, other than paying an executive director an exorbitant salary for a few years.

I realize it’s easy to throw bombs from the back row, and I’ve never been involved in major fundraising or renovation projects, mainly because people know I’m a journalist and have no money to offer. But really, why is this so hard?

Other cities do it all the time all over the country, and here in North Carolina.

We have an enormous amount of wealth around here. We have homes for sale for $34 million. We’ve got one of the world’s premier tourism destinations, the Biltmore Estate, just down the hill from downtown. Not to mention the Omni Grove Park Inn and a thriving downtown that helps draw 11 million tourists every year.

And our main performing arts center is kind of a dump.

We’ve got big corporations, too, including the aforementioned Biltmore Estate, as well as Ingles Markets, Pratt & Whitney, Eaton Corp., BorgWarner, and Mission HCA.

So why can’t we have nice things?

Look, every city in America struggles with affordable housing, homelessness, racial equity, and other pressing societal problems. But hundreds of them also have a performing arts venue locals don’t routinely mock for its jankiness.

My argument is Asheville, Buncombe County, the TDA, and our wealthy corporations and citizens can do both. They can provide the basics and give residents nice things.

We just need someone with the vision, drive, and perseverance to get it done.

Preferably before the ceiling falls and kills somebody.

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 jboyle@avlwatchdog.org

28 replies on “Opinion: It’s just about crisis time for the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. In other words, time for the city to take action”

  1. The hard reality is that Asheville “stretches itself way too thin” with the current tax base that it has. And I’m not talking about raising taxes, I’m saying that the city has too small of a geographical footprint to support the various amenities that most cities provide.

    And Buncombe County, which has the much larger tax base doesn’t see fit to help support some of these amenities which are used by all in the region.

    The other signficant contributor which is starting to get some light is that the wealthy in this community are NOT paying their fair share of taxes. This includes very high end houses as well as certain businesses that for some reason don’t think they should have to support the tax base like everyone else, but have no problem taking advantage of the city’s infrastructure.

    1. I kind of agree with you Mike about the county helping out. My only problem with that is back in 2016, the repairs would have cost $40 million, now, the estimate is $120 million, a three fold increase. Once again, the city has waited until it is too late to initiate the repairs, resulting in the county tax payers to endure the costs of repairs. I wish they would have come to us sooner.

    2. Your comment touches on an issue that’s rarely raised but should be at the top of the list: city-county consolidation. Asheville and Buncombe County should be merged, like Jacksonville and Duval County in Florida in the 1960s, with independent niches allowed for the smaller municipalities that wish to keep them. Among other things, that would finally give non-Asheville voters a say in the water system, and it shouldn’t be necessary to explain why that is a good idea.

    3. EVERYBODY pays the same sales tax rate. EVERYBODY pays the same rate on ad valorem property taxes. Are you claiming the valuation (done by the county) is unfairly low for mansions?

      OR are you saying property taxes should be tied to wealth or income?? Or maybe that ad valorem millage rates should be graduated? I think those would be both impractical and illegal… It took a Constitutional amendment to create the graduated income tax.

  2. Hey, now, we need that cash for banners at the USTA and full-page ads in the New York Times. Come on, John, get off your Fletcher turnip farm and embrace The Asheville Way.

  3. “And our main performing arts center is kind of a dump.”

    Surely you jest. A ‘total’ dump. I’ll never set foot in there again.

  4. Speaking of Greenville, the County has recently passed its first property tax increase in almost 30 years and they managed to build a state of the art facility that hosts world class shows year round. I don’t know how they did that except to say, they are obviously better managed. One thing to note is that a mix of Republicans and Democrats serve on the Greenville city council and I doubt that the Democrats elected down in Greenville are progressive. My guess is that they’re moderates. So maybe that makes for better, efficient and effective local government, electing bipartisan, centrist representatives who will focus on basic issues. When will Asheville voters figure that out. I fear they won’t and will continue voting for progressive candidates that make them feel validated but fail to deal effectively with local issues, such as the ones presented by the auditorium. They Council we have now may be excellent at tearing down monuments but not so good at confronting the more practical governmental problems that affect the quality of life here in Asheville.

  5. In Asheville, the old political saying that, “All politics is local,” has been turned on its head. Here, it might more accurately be observed that, “No politics is local.”

    Too many residents, and thus too many of their elected and appointed representatives, are fixated on chasing issues over which a city like Asheville has little to no real power. Of course Asheville needs to play its part in addressing everything from global warming, to broad issues of social justice. However, the city has now long been overly preoccupied with such problems, and as a result has neglected the very things which need to be its central focus.

    Service delivery, local infrastructure, public safety, and maintaining a decent quality of life for residents must be brought back to center stage if anything is going to change.

  6. Tear it down and build new on the same land. Make the whole adjacent area in front of the magnificent Basilica of Saint Lawrence a lively event space. Think of Piazza di Santa Croce in Florence. We have such magnificence possible. Let’s take advantage of our opportunity!

    1. To jrh0 . July 04, 2023
      The church near the civic center, The Basilica of Saint Lawrence, is a an Historical icon and an Asheville treasure, that has many many visitors. It would be totally inappropriate to build a “loud and lively event space” at the door of a sacred and historical building .

  7. Everyone knows what the problem is. But John Boyle has done us a favor by stating it once again. It’s our feckless, unimaginative, yes, “woke,” city administration. My words not his. He is much more polite. Tear down monuments, build bike lanes, pay reparations. Let the city crumble around us. Dare I mention a crazed man stabbing a dog to death in Weaver Park, which is yet another manifestation of the underlying problem? There is nobody asleep at the switch. There is nobody at the switch.

    1. “There is nobody asleep at the switch. There is nobody at the switch.” Hear, hear!

    2. They’ll never be able to pay reparations; it’s far too complex for their small minds and just performance activism that SCOTUS won’t allow. What we really need to do is get elected officials to make everything better and safer for the people who are here NOW.

  8. Meanwhile, handouts to wealthy baseball team owners; handouts to developers to raze forests to build ‘affordable’ housing so local businesses can afford to hire help to serve tourists whose dollars go (mostly) just to lure more tourists; pricey contracts to consultants who skin us for 200 grand here, 200 grand there and then invest in 2nd homes to rent out at exorbitant rates; money squandered toppling monuments (as if that will solve systemic racism or heal the divide) when what this city really needs is a serious Come To Jesus Meeting. And yes, when I went to see David Sedaris at that abysmal auditorium, I mistook it for Shawshank Prison.

  9. I have been repeatedly, and consistently dazzled by the reporting by John Boyle. AND all of his fellow journalists, for which they have been awarded well-deserved National journalism awards.
    Meanwhile, the “for profit” allegedly local newspaper is a disgrace. Virtually NO LOCAL COVERAGE, unless you follow closely restaurant openings, closings, and the latest information on any changes or improvents that may occur, or highlights from City/County meetings, there is NO LOCAL NEWS. Coincidentally, there are also no significant journalism awards being handed out. I would happily ditch the City Manager, the Mayor, and the entire City Council in exchange for the terrific staff and journalists from AVLWATCHDOG.org.

  10. You hit every nail on the head, this is 100% spot on. At you can find hilarity in the infuriating and break it down. Thank you. I’m super bummed that I bailed on seeing The Smile. This felt like one for us Gen X locals (and tourist), out of the heat and drunkenness of most shows (Rabbit Rabbit, no thank you)…oh well, yet another clear as day sign(s) that our city leader’s are not qualified and that the wealthy give zero f’s about this city…if it’s on their dime. Contrast that with a smallish city like Pittsburgh…the Carnegies knew what they were doing…the Vanderbilts and their modern day 3rd mansion owners, not so much, selfish and inbred. We don’t even have one hospital worth a shit, much less a performing arts center for everyone to enjoy. I guess for those who like to get day drunk on $12 beers and tube in E Coli, it’s a gd paradise though.

  11. As someone who contributed to the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts, I have been curious to know why those of us who contributed stopped getting financial reports a number of years ago. The last I had heard all expenses went to
    hiring a few “consultants.” This should be investigated. Well intended, concerned
    people contributed to this venture! It is beyond belief that we are still looking for solutions!

    1. That’s disturbing to hear. Perhaps it’s time we finally strip away slaveholder Samuel Ashe once and for all and re-name this city “Consultantville”.

  12. The 1st annual beer stein award for outstanding local journalism goes to….John Boyle!!!

  13. I have to agree with those who suggest that it’s time to tear it down and start over. I’m no financial expert, but why can’t we do a bond issue. Sure the bonds would require a referendum. If the voters turn it down, just tear down this derelict and let someone build another hotel or brewery. Of course, if we continue to neglect our infrastructure we won’t need any more hotels or breweries. Asheville is rapidly moving from shabby chic to just plain shabby.

    1. And the TDA finds it alarming that numbers are down…and of course, rather than acknowledging (and working to address) the actual problems, they’ll just…..Increase Advertising

  14. For those who want to renovate the Thomas Wolfe at a cost of well over $120 million and those who favor tearing the whole thing down and starting over at the same location, remember that downtown Asheville is not equipped to handle the traffic for a 2,500 seat auditorium or a 7,600 seat arena, or, god forbid, both when they are each hosting events. I live next door, and I know whereof I speak. And the auditorium, even with that renovation, would still not be able to host top tier Broadway touring shows.

    Tear it all down, yes. Sell the land. Sell the Pit of Despair. Use that money, the $120 million and many, many millions more to build new facilities elsewhere, preferably not together.

    The bureaucrats who run the City of Asheville and Buncombe County, not to mention their nominal political overlords, are largely incompetent and afraid to rock the boat and have absolutely no vision.

    Greenville was lucky enough to have the super generous Peace family. But we have families just as wealthy. They need to be leading the way.

    1. Amen, Christopher Paine. Just do what we do, and schlep down to the Peace Center in Greenville. Maybe if enough of us do it, Asheville and Buncombe County will finally realize that the absence of acts and empty seats are costing them so much that they will finally have to act in…(groan)…concert.

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