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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
“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 email@example.com