Harrah's $6M naming rights bid presented to commission

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Asheville is moving ahead with a $40 million plant to overhaul Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. The question remains, though, where will funding for the ambitious plan come from. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

Asheville is moving forward with a $40 million target amount and newly hired architect to draw up plans that would overhaul Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.

The question remains, though, where will funding for the ambitious plan come from.

Plans drawn up about two years ago are still relevant to the vision today, Civic Center Manager Chris Corl said.

Corl gave a presentation Friday to the nine-member Downtown Commission, who wanted information about the plan, as well as the two bids for the naming rights -- one from U.S. Cellular and the other from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

Harrah’s bid remains the much larger proposal, at nearly $6 million over 10 years. U.S. Cellular’s bid is closer to $1 million.

The money from Harrah's bid, Corl said, could become seed money start to kick off a capital campaign to raise the rest.

But there's controversy around Harrah’s bid, because some people think the city shouldn’t associate or partner with a gaming entity like Harrah’s.

Sage Turner, chair of the Downtown Commission, sees both sides of the issue. The ultimate vote lies with Asheville City Council.

“As you know, the budgets are very tight in this city,” Turner said. “And we have a lot of goals. I think it’s going to be a hard conversation for city officials to have to turn down $6 million and get $1 (million) instead.”

“On paper, the Harrah’s proposal is clearly a winner when you look strictly at the dollars,” said Toby Weas, a member of the Downtown Commission.

Corl, meanwhile, is making presentations to various groups while also presenting charities Harrah’s donates to in the Asheville area to show their involvement in the community. But the bottom line remains there is controversy over a casino getting naming rights for the arena.

Stephanie Brown, president of the Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, sent a long email to local leaders, detailing a list of reasons she thinks it would be a mistake for council to accept Harrah’s bid.

“Harrah’s national corporate gaming brand is inconsistent with our community identity,” Brown wrote. “As the city embarks upon a major fundraising campaign to renovate the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, will potential sponsors see an affiliation with a national corporate gaming brand as a positive?”

Corl said he went to the CVB to ask if it wanted to bid on the naming rights, but the organization, with Brown as the lead, said no. Brown cited the $5-plus-million the Tourism Development Authority has granted the arena and center over recent years, and assured more investment is coming.

The TDA and Tourism Product Development Fund receives millions in tourism taxes from hotel stays. The TPD Fund is focused on improving and developing capital improvements to draw tourists.

Corl said the Thomas Wolfe falls into that category. Brown doesn’t disagree, but said the timing is off currently, and the city has not officially put in an application for the Thomas Wolfe.

Corl said because Brown and fellow board members did not bid on naming rights, there was no reason to put in an application for other funding. His priority now is to close a deal on the naming rights bid as the seed amount, to kick off the $40 million capital fund.

The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau has hired a consultant to reach out to the community over the next year and develop a priority list of capital projects residents and leaders think should take place.

Brown said Thomas Wolfe Auditorium will likely be on the list. The consultant, Brown said, won’t be finished with the work until next April.

Corl said the U.S. Cellular Center's naming rights contract expires in December, and a new contract must be executed by June.

Council, he said, is expected to vote on the bids May 28.

Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler and council members Vijay Kapoor and Julie Mayfield are on the finance committee, which will review the bids on April 23.