What Tuscaloosa can learn from Asheville, Part 1: Civic center success

Benchmarking Civic Center

This is Part 1 in a six-part series analyzing the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama’s benchmarking trip to Asheville, North Carolina, in September. Around 80 Tuscaloosa business and city leaders were in attendance at the event.

There’s a lot Tuscaloosa can learn from Asheville, North Carolina. The cities are similarly sized, with Asheville’s population hovering around 83,000 and Tuscaloosa just under 100,000. They’re both positioned with a good bit of riverfront. Tourism is a big draw.

But one thing Asheville has that Tuscaloosa doesn’t? A major civic center facility operated by the city.

Asheville is known for its arts, entertainment, two dozen-plus breweries and Harrah’s Cherokee Center, which offers space for conventions, concerts and more.

The space features a 7,200-seat arena, a 2,400-seat theater and about 100,000 square feet of exhibition space.

“We’re everything from civic events to high school graduations, national touring concerts, national basketball games, international tennis,” said Harrah’s General Manager Chris Corl. “Pretty much anything that can fit in the room, we’ll put in the room.”

And Harrah’s brings in a whole lot more than concerts and sporting events, considering its economic impact on the area is $42 million a year.

Asheville’s leaders say the key to that success is partnerships.

Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Public Policy Corey Atkins said the city is a place where people like living in and visiting, and word of mouth has improved that desire even more.

“I think (residents and tourists) just want to come to Asheville,” Atkins said. “They see Asheville is a good midsize market and we get a lot of attention from touring companies and promotion companies.”

Those companies talk, Atkins said, and once one of them has a great experience, the others are more likely to book events in Asheville.

Downtown Asheville benefits from those concerts and conventions, Corl said, because out-of-towners need places to eat, sleep or get a drink.

“We’re giving people a reason to come to Asheville outside of just coming for a vacation so, it’s really like a shot in the arm for all the downtown businesses and regional businesses, depending on the type of event that we’re bringing in,” Corl said.

While the conventions are a great draw, they’re not near as profitable as the concerts, he said.

“We can make a lot of money (on concerts) compared to a convention, but those conventions fill in those days like Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday,” Corld said. “People don’t go to concerts on Mondays. So you find a way to do both, and you’re going to have a better opportunity to generate revenue more consistently throughout the year.”

Tuscaloosa city officials have spent years — decades, even, discussing whether or not building a convention center is a worthwhile investment.

In 2007, the city hired a consulting firm for a feasibility study on whether or not to build a convention center in the old CityFest lot at the corner of University Boulevard and Greensboro Avenue. That study suggested it wasn’t the right time. Now, that space is occupied by Embassy Suites by Hilton Tuscaloosa and Homewood Suites by Hilton Tuscaloosa.

In 2019, the Tuscaloosa City Council approved a $100,000 feasibility study with a wider reach regarding potential convention center locations based on accessibility to resources including hotels and restaurants. So far, the study has honed in on several areas that have potential, including the former McFarland Mall site at the corner of Skyland and McFarland Boulevards, downtown Tuscaloosa, on Skyland Boulevard near the Interstate 20-59 overpass or near Lake Tuscaloosa.

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