Buncombe commissioners approve $1.3 million for Enka/Candler sports complex

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After an hourlong discussion and seven stipulations, Buncombe County commissioners approved donating $1.3 million to help fund a new sports complex in Enka-Candler — although one commissioner described the proposal as a “little outside the norm.”

The complex would consist of seven baseball fields on 90 acres near Interstate 40 at the former Enka/BASF manufacturing site. The land will be donated by Fletcher Partners, and the complex will be built and maintained by the Enka Youth Sports Organization (EYSO), a nonprofit created in the last few weeks. Buncombe’s $1.3 million would go to EYSO, which has not yet achieved its official 501(c)3 status.

“I think it’s a sound plan,” said Commissioner Holly Jones. “That said, we’re getting to [fund] a nonprofit where the ink’s not dry [on its status], there’s no financials to look at, so we’re kind of going out here on faith with a big dollar amount. I believe in you, but I just wanted to say that in terms of transparency and accountability that [what we’re doing] is outside of our norm.”

According to project progenitor and Fletcher Partners member Martin Lewis, the complex will be entirely self-sustaining, if everything goes according to plan: “We would have sponsored fields, banners in the outfields, and we would also have tournament teams that would be coming in.”

The plan, according to Lewis, calls for hosting travel baseball and softball teams on the weekend, and paying for field upkeep with concessions, ticket prices and sponsorships. During the week, the fields would be open to the public, ideally for free, as long as public users cleaned up after themselves, he explained. This would enable the facility to remain solvent without further county support.

Buncombe’s $1.3 million funding came with four stipulations initially: that the spec building (from which the donation money is coming) sells to a private investor, that the EYSO secures the donated 90 acres from Fletcher Partners, that the EYSO garners $2.4 million from the Tourism Development Fund and that EYSO secures $1 million in private donations. As of Sept. 2, about $750,000 had already been raised.

Commissioners added three more conditions.

Commissioner David King added an amendment that calls for EYSO to build a greenway, at a cost of about $125,000.

During the public-comment period on the proposal, Buncombe County Board of Education member Lisa Baldwin noted concerns about environmental safety. Thirty of the 90 acres sits on a closed landfill, and other land rests on the Hominy Creek floodway.

“We were comfortable,” Lewis assured commissioners. “After looking at the property and doing due diligence … we were OK with that.”

Nonetheless, Commissioner Joe Belcher put forth an amendment requiring that the environmental report be supplied to the Board and studied by staff as part of the conditions for the $1.3 million dollar donation.

Commissioner Brownie Newman raised concerns about the future of the facility. “In the long run … are there things we should be thinking about on the front end to ensure, when none of us are sitting here, that there is some long-term public accountability? … What if, in 30 years, this land is worth $50 million, and it’s converted from a public to a private purpose? I just want to make sure that this board is set up so that won’t happen.”

After some discussion, the commissioners added one more condition:  If in the future the nonprofit wants to change the use of the land from recreational sports, the Board of Commissioners would have to approve the change. This amendment brought the total number of conditions to seven.

Conditions in place, the motion to award the $1.3 million passed 7-0.

Other business:

• County Manager Wanda Greene presented a few points regarding the county’s retirement incentive. So far, 131 employees have chosen to take the incentive, and will be leaving the county after Sept. 30 if they haven’t already left. Greene said it would take a few weeks to get all the savings information together. “We are losing a lot of institutional memory,” she said. “It’s been a little bit tougher than we expected, but I think everybody’s happy with the results.”

• The Board unanimously approved closing an unopened road in Candler. The road, Oak Street, was prepared by the county but never completed and opened, and the property owners along the road petitioned for it to be closed completely.

• The county had two “good news” items. The first was a proclamation by Holly Jones to representatives of Minority Enterprise Development Week, which is in its 31st year in Asheville. MED Week runs Sept. 8-14. The second was a presentation by the Asheville Humane Society, which saved a record 5,599 animals in the previous fiscal year and has not had to euthanize an animal since 2010.

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