Council Trades Vision for Fancy Arena

US Cellular Center becomes Harrah's Cherokee Center-Asheville

Leslee Kulba- For the next 10 years, the Asheville Civic Center will be called the Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville. US Cellular had purchased naming rights in November 2011, paying the city $150,000 per year for the duration of what, with two allowable extensions, turned out to be a nine-year contract.

Mayor Esther Manheimer recalled how this had been an unpopular decision, but civic centers are deemed essential municipal amenities, and they operate at a loss.

Had the city not entered into the agreement, it would have had to pay substantial subsidies from the general fund. In parting, she and Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler thanked US Cellular for making possible upgrades necessary to host SOCON and other big events.

US Cellular Center General Manager Chris Corl said in renewing the contract, a specially-formed committee was trying to find a “culturally and socially compatible” sponsor able to pay $500,000 per year. US Cellular had offered a five-year contract with a full-term value of $878,704 with potential for another $43,937 in attendance bonuses.

While offering the city $128,745 more than the current contract, the offer fell seriously short of the target. Advantages of taking the deal, however, included US Cellular was a low-maintenance partner with strong regional marketing.

Harrah’s, however, offered a 10-year contract valued at $5,000,000 plus an additional $750,000 to be invested in upgrades, like a videoboard and video ribbon that add to the dizzying spectacle of modern sports arenas. Harrah’s also offered the city up to $250,000 in reimbursements for swapping out signs, uniforms, and whatever else needed new logos. Not only did the Harrah’s offer represent a huge sum, it also increased the value of the civic center for purchasers of naming rights in future years.

David Nutter opened public comment describing the venue as a way for the city to be more inclusive of the Cherokee Nation. The opposition, however, spoke on moral grounds. Barney Bryant of BB Barnes said while he was part Cherokee, and Harrah’s did a lot of business with his company; he did not support the city advertising gambling. He told the story of somebody he knew who lost all he had at the casino and returned home to shoot his wife, kids, and himself. “It’s a mistake to let money buy us,” he said.

Paul Van Heden said he spent a lot of time in Vegas last year, where locals know casinos “unapologetically hurt people and feed on addiction.” He spoke about Circus Circus being designed to draw families to the town and make children feel comfortable as their parents spend their college fund, their retirement, and any savings they may have gambling.

Harrah’s, he said, wanted their logo on the Civic Center to build positive associations with their casino, that would be built any time children had a good experience in or around the building. While other industries feed off addiction, he said, none do so as exclusively and intentionally as casinos. Van Heden wanted members of council to value the individual lives that will be damaged by compulsive gambling more than any money the casinos could give, whether to tribal members or the city.

Several at the meeting compared the city’s support of gambling to its support of beer. Councilor Julie Mayfield, who was the only member of council to vote against naming the civic center after Harrah’s, offered the difference was Asheville’s brand was about creating and making. Local brewers are crafters; Asheville is Beer City because of the art and production, not consumption. While, admittedly, brewers produce for consumption, people go to casinos, where the odds are against them, to try to get nothing but money.

Councilor Keith Young said he didn’t want to hear any arguments about the “moral superiority” of beer to gambling. Knocking claims made about ruined families, he said people could find statistics to defend any position. He celebrated what Van Heden had referred to as “blood money,” seeing it as an opportunity to get funds the city needs for repairing and improving the civic center. He noted more socially-acceptable endeavors, like schools, were not gifting as much to charity as was the casino.

During public comment, Jonathan Wainscott asked what had happened to council’s anti-corporate sentiments. There was little difference between the red, white, and blue star logos proposed by either contender. “It all looks plastic,” he said. While there was no money to be gained, he suggested if Asheville wanted to keep its brand, it should name the center after an unsung local hero.

If council wanted to support historically excluded populations, it could name the building after a minority. Doing so would call attention to that person’s story and why they’re valuable to the scene members of council are trying to promote, and thus draw the kind of tourists council wants to attract.

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