Asheville City Council is talking tough about whether the city even needs a new sports arena, faced with a reported $593,737 loss on the arena side of the Civic Center.
Coming on top of the $292,682 Civic Center subsidy that's already in the city's budget, this could spell doom for the prospects of building a new sports arena.
At Council members' May 16 meeting, Civic Center Director David Pisha blamed the huge deficit on costly electrical repairs, unexpected declines in attendance at Asheville Smoke hockey games, and the fact that the arena has hosted fewer large-scale events, which are the big money makers.
"Boy, this deficit amount equals the amount we subsidize the Transit Department," commented Mayor Leni Sitnick, asking, "Why did we lose those acts?"
"Agents view this market as a single market," Pisha responded, citing the migration of big acts to the new Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C. Acts choosing not to return this year included Disney on Ice, the circus, an Amway convention, the World Wrestling Federation, and seven concerts. Some of those concerts, however, involved country performers like Alan Jackson and George Jones who simply aren't touring this year. The Civic Center includes both an arena (for conventions and sports events) and the Thomas Wolfe Auditiorium (which hosts mostly concerts). Proposals have been made to build separate facilities to house the two functions.
But even apart from the fickle nature of the concert business, Council member Ed Hay, who also chairs the Civic Center Task Force, questioned whether this is a big enough market to support a sports arena. He said the number of arenas in the South has increased 400 percent since the 1970s. The events business is changing, he continued; the Charlotte Coliseum now hosts the biggest acts, and the Bi-Lo Center -- which isn't making a profit, either -- has already fallen to second-tier status.
"It's tougher and tougher to justify, economically, having an arena in a city as small we are," concluded Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger, who in recent weeks has criticized the idea of building a new facility. "I think, when the hockey team's lease comes to an end, we'll need to determine whether this community can continue to have an arena."
Despite having no debt service, he noted, the present facility doesn't even come close to being self-supporting. And considering the Civic Center's falling revenues and the added cost of debt service, how could the city justify paying for a new arena, he wondered. Asheville would be better off, said Cloninger, concentrating on building a first-class performing-arts and convention center on the present Civic Center site.
"A key component in this will be the convention center and hotel," agreed the mayor. Those proposed facilities, she said, are interconnected with the downtown economy -- because convention-goers want the kind of nighttime entertainment provided by downtown restaurants and the arts center. The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium has continued to be the Civic Center's one bright spot, noted Hay. Year after year, it hosts a large number of successful shows, with low overhead; it's also the home of the popular Asheville Symphony, he reported.
To make up for the arena's unexpected shortfall, however, City Council must now pass a $593,737 budget amendment to balance the overall Civic Center budget, which -- as Council member Barbara Field pointed out -- they are legally required to do. The remaining $292,682 loss had been expected and was already covered in the budget.
"I got this on Saturday and fell out of my chair," exclaimed Council member Brian Peterson, who seemed to have been caught off-guard by the extent of the arena's problems. He pestered Pisha about why maintenance costs were higher this year, despite hosting fewer events. "Why is it costing more when it's being used less?" he asked.
Pisha said maintenance costs are higher for hockey games than for other events. "It takes more electricity to maintain the ice for 37 games, and more effort to earn the same amount of revenue, because it's more labor-intensive," he explained. "Last year, we earned $50,000 in just three days from the Amway convention."
City Manager Jim Westbrook summarized the Civic Center's whole financial history, noting that hefty revenue deficits are nothing new. In the first few years, the city subsidized the Civic Center to the tune of $1 million per year; after that, the annual budget deficit hovered around the half-million-dollar mark for a long while. The low point in the budget deficit, he said, came under Civic Center Director Jim Scott, in the early '90s -- a time when the facility's public image also reached an all-time low.
According to Hay, Scott had a clause in his contract with the city that increased his salary as the deficit went down. But Hay said Scott cut the deficit, at least in part, by slashing maintenance budgets -- which is one reason the Civic Center is in such poor shape today. Scott later resigned, after a rancorous dispute with the city.
Asheville on film
The Asheville Film Board reported to City Council on its efforts to lure Hollywood movies and a television series to the area, wowing Council members with a new promotional video.
Produced by WLOS-TV, the eight-minute video highlights 90 years of filmmaking in Western North Carolina. Asheville itself has many film credits, from Conquest of Canaan (made in 1921) to more recent films like Patch Adams and My Fellow Americans.
"This video blew us away," said film-board Chair Pam Turner. The video showcases the area's unique filming locations, such as Biltmore House and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Other recent film board projects, said Turner, have included creating a new Web site; presenting workshops on acting, locations and working as an "extra"; and sending a representative to Los Angeles to promote Asheville as a movie location.
But the big news, which Turner saved for last, is that Asheville is very close to landing a television series. Film-board member Bo Bobec said a major network is bringing back the series Christy, a Little House on Prairie-type show set in 1912-era Tennessee. Bobec, who won an Academy Award for her work on Titanic, says she's busy scouting for locations to film the new series in the Asheville area.