U.S. Cellular no more? Harrah's Cherokee Casino tops bids to rename Civic Center.

Elizabeth Anne Brown
The Citizen-Times
The U.S. Cellular Center, formerly known as the Asheville Civic Center, in downtown Asheville.

The bids are in and U.S. Cellular might soon be out. 

The city's Civic Center Commission said this week Harrah's Cherokee Casino outbid the Chicago-based telecommunications company for the rights to the name of Asheville's downtown arena. The casino owned by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians bid $3.25 million for five years at the arena, a deal which could be worth as much as $5.75 million if its name stays on it through the end of the next decade.

In a return bid, U.S. Cellular offered a deal worth about $543,000 for three years with the potential to reach a total of less than $1 million if it agrees to stay on two more.

The previous deal, which helped bankroll a portion of the Civic Center's renovations in recent years, netted the city $1.35 million over eight years. City Council approved that agreement in November 2011. It expires at the end of the year.


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Both bids are a dramatic increase that could pay into more upgrades at the facility, and particularly the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, commission Chair Corey Atkins said. But some commissions also voiced concerns about accepting the high bid from Harrah's, despite the potential financial gain, due to perceived social and cultural incompatibility. 

"If we go with Harrah's, the pushback from the community will be absolutely astounding," Commissioner Bill Jones said. "I don't see how our community will accept being tied to a casino at all."

The initial term offer from Harrah's includes $1 million earmarked for changes to the facility, most notable the purchase of a new video board as well as rebranding it with a new name.

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Rocker Dave Grohl plays the drums during a December 2018 performance for Christmas Jam at Asheville's U.S. Cellular Center. Grohl is best known as being the lead singer of The Foo Fighters and for being the drummer in Nirvana until Kurt Cobain's death in 1994.

The naming license covers exterior signage, street pole banners, street and wayfinding signage, staff uniforms, receipts and tickets. The license holders will also get a namedrop during any broadcasts or streaming services involving the center and event advertising.

Although the Harrah's bid does not include a specific name, Atkins emphasized certain parameters already have been established.

"I can be very clear that the word 'casino' will not be on or inside the building whatsoever," he said. 

Concerns over social blowback 

Commissioner Kimberly Hunter raised concerns about the impact on the community. She asserted branding alone from casinos — not the casinos themselves, but the act of advertising a "certain lifestyle" in Las Vegas — has caused increased childhood dropout rates, collapse of family units and even increased suicide rates in young people.

"I don't think our kids are for sale. That's what you're asking me to vote on — to put our children's future for at risk for the sake of a few hundred thousand dollars a year," she said.

Commissioner Tom Van Slambrouck countered that Asheville has a remarkable density of bars and breweries, which "no one seems to have a problem with."

Wes Wright, a local banker who claims Harrah's as a customer, threw his weight behind its bid. He asked commissioners to look to how the Eastern Band of Cherokee invests the profits from casinos — community development and funding for children's programs — rather than the nature of gambling as an industry.

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"It's beyond just a casino. It's a whole cultural movement over there (in Cherokee)," Wright said, and a relationship with Asheville could be an opportunity to share Cherokee culture and history with the broader community. "There's not going to be gaming machines out in the lobby.

"They want to bring what has happened in Cherokee, 60 miles away, a little bit closer."

City staffers plan to present the best offers to City Council yet this spring for approval. A new deal is expected to begin by Jan. 1, 2020.