Asheville City Council

By the time you read this, the city of Asheville might be in the golf business.

Or maybe not.

On Jan. 5, Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson gave Asheville City Council members a unique recommendation: Buy the 214-acre French Broad Golf Center in Fletcher for $3.5 million.

The driving force behind his recommendation? The Parks and Recreation Department wants an estimated $20 million worth of improvements in the coming years, and golf is “one of the few revenue-generating recreation sources,” said Brinson.

His department has about $500,000 each year to devote to capital improvements. “It doesn’t take a lot of math to figure out that $500,000 a year doesn’t do much to meet a $20 million need,” as Brinson put it.

The city contracted with the National Golf Foundation, a consulting firm, to visit the course, estimate probable revenues and expenses, and determine what, if any, improvements would be needed.

According to NGF’s calculations, the city would break even in the first year it bought the golf course, and it would net more than a $500,000 profit by the sixth year — after making annual payments on the initial loan.

Brinson argued that the annual net profits would be substantial enough that the city could use them to fund much-needed Parks and Recreation projects, particularly if the city took out a bigger loan — say, $5 million — and used golf-course profits to cover that debt service.

He noted that the city’s purchase offer is approximately $2 million less than what the owners have invested in the course.

Mayor Leni Sitnick thanked Brinson for his “creativity in looking for [Parks and Recreation] funds.” But she wanted to know why, if the course is so potentially lucrative, the current owners would want to sell it.

Brinson replied that two of the owners lost money in unrelated ventures and turned the course management over to the current owner, Larry Trenary, who has gone bankrupt in the venture.

Brinson linked that third owner’s financial woes to poor management, particularly the construction of an “extravagant [$1.5 million] clubhouse.”

Vice Mayor Ed Hay, a bankruptcy lawyer, remarked, “I’ve seen it before: Extravagant hopes wash out.” He suggested that the purchase proposal “sounds good.”

But Sitnick and Council member Barbara Field mentioned that they have both heard “some concerns” about the course, including a history of flooding problems and “surrounding farmland [that] creates … a certain aroma,” Sitnick said.

“I grew up on a farm. That’s perfume to me,” Brinson joked in reply.

Sitnick continued, “[But] if the private sector couldn’t make [a profit], how could the city?” She also asked whether there is a call for urgency in considering the proposal. “Can we negotiate for a better price?”

Brinson started with her first concern: flooding. He conceded that, after a major spring rain in 1994, the course had to be closed for an entire month. But subsequent repairs, made in 1995, have corrected the problem, he said. “This past June, after [nearly 4 inches of rain] in 24 hours, the [NGF] consultants were able to play a whole round of golf the next day,” Brinson mentioned.

As for the smell from nearby farming operations, Brinson said, “You’re going to have an aroma on some days. But I’ve played [at French Broad] and didn’t smell it.”

He added that the city would have to spend about $500,000 for new maintenance equipment and improvements to the course, such as tee repairs at each hole. And there is some urgency to the purchase proposal, he contended: “The owner has several offers pending.”

Brinson repeated his pitch that the course could be a good deal for the city, saying, “Golf course fees can be very lucrative for a city … [if] we make sure that ownership and management [of the course] stay with the city.” He pointed out that NGF consultants recommended contracting out the restaurant and concession operations at the clubhouse, but retaining management of the course itself — which, Brinson insisted, the city could do a good job of.

After Council member O.T. Tomes asked how long it would take the city to realize a profit, Brinson made his final point: “When you’re not making anything, any amount is good.” By the third year, the city could see nearly $200,000 in net profits, according to NGF’s report.

One person concerned about the proposal is Bob Parrish, the mayor of Fletcher, who mentioned, “What Mr. Brinson did not tell you, this entire golf course is located in the town of Fletcher [in] Henderson County.”

And Fletcher Town Manager Craig Honeycutt remarked, “We’re not here against this proposal. But when the city purchases the course, Fletcher would lose $11,000 in tax revenue, because [the property] would become tax-exempt.”

That’s a lot of money to the little town — money that helps pay for police and fire protection at the course, as well as other town services, Honeycutt said. “We would like [you] to think about some kind of contract in lieu of taxes.”

“Could we police it ourselves?” Field wondered out loud.

“That would be like us coming over to patrol Asheville,” Parrish objected.

Council member Chuck Cloninger interjected, “I’m sure that something fair could be worked out.”

As the discussion concluded, Council members agreed to visit the course on the afternoon before their Jan. 13 formal session at City Hall. A public hearing on the proposal will be held during that session, which begins at 5 p.m.

Incidentally, on the evening of Jan. 7 — when relentless rain dumped 4.15 inches of water on Asheville — portions of the French Broad golf course flooded again. The next day, Asheville Landscape Architect Al Kopf went to evaluate the situation. Vice Mayor Hay remarked, “It’s pretty bad. … If it’s still unplayable when we [Council members] go out there Tuesday [the 13th], you can bet we won’t be inclined to go through with the deal.”

Build a hotel and they will come

Asheville’s Civic Center needs more than a facelift. It needs an adjacent hotel, so the city can attract more conventions and conferences.

So says Vice Mayor Ed Hay, who brought that recommendation to fellow City Council members during their Jan. 5 work session. Hay, who chairs the Civic Center Task Force, said, “We need the hotel.”

A consulting firm, Hunter Interests of Maryland, recently completed a study of the Civic Center’s current market position in the region. The firm concluded that Asheville has the potential to draw more conventions and conferences — provided that the city makes some improvements, such as adding high-tech services like video conferencing, renovating the meeting space, and doubling the 24,000-square-foot exhibition area by building an addition.

Such improvements should be postponed until a private developer commits to creating a 250-room hotel within walking distance of the center, Hay reported. “Without that [new hotel], it doesn’t work.”

According to Hay, a hotel needs to be adjacent to the Civic Center to really draw conventions. He contends that downtown hotels such as the Radisson and the Haywood Park don’t meet that description, although they’re just blocks away.

In recent years, the Civic Center has lost some large events. That’s partly because many promoters say they’ve outgrown the facility, which is smaller than several newer ones in the region, Hay said, summarizing conclusions of the task force and the consultants.

The parking issue will be addressed by a soon-to-be-completed study, he continued. In addition, there had been some question about what kinds of services and events the Civic Center should provide — and whether the city should build a new center, away from downtown.

“Moving the center outside downtown would be a mistake, because [downtown] is a number-one draw [for conventions]. … It was built [in the 1970s] to revitalize downtown,” Hay pointed out. Other cities, he noted, have built newer, bigger facilities, hoping to draw major sports events and the like. “But that was a mistake,” Hay concluded, because those facilities — which cost much more than the proposed Civic Center updates — have generally failed to attract those clients.

“Everybody wants to know where [the hotel] would go,” Hay said. “We haven’t got that far yet.”

“At what stage do we start talking to hotels? Do we start putting out feelers now?” asked Cloninger.

“The cat’s out of the bag,” Hay replied. “Start now.”

Asheville’s Civic Center is a multipurpose facility that can host conventions, performing-arts and sporting events, Hay said, pulling together the results of all the meetings and research. “That’s a strength. … And, basically, people like the Civic Center the way it is.”

Hay recommended that Council members allow Hunter Interests to complete the next stage of the study: coming up with specific recommendations on how to achieve the “modest proposal,” as Hay called it. Council members had previously budgeted up to $35,000 to complete the study. To date, Hunter Interests has charged roughly $9,500 for their work.

Council members decided to vote on the second phase of the study in the Jan. 13 consent agenda, which means they don’t expect to discuss it further.

Updating the Minority Business Plan

And giving it some teeth

Put your commitment where your plan is, the Minority Business Commission urged Asheville City Council members.

On Jan. 5, Laura Todd Thomas, chair of the nine-member commission, presented Council with a proposed joint Minority Business Plan for Asheville and Buncombe County.

The city created its own plan in 1994, which sets policies for trying to ensure “equal access” for minority-owned firms seeking to do business with the city or county, she said. The county does not have a minority-business plan in place.

The proposed joint plan has “no set-asides [and] no quotas” for hiring or contracting with minority businesses, she stressed. However, it does recommend changing the commission’s makeup, as well as requiring city and county staff to be graded on compliance during their regular employee evaluations.

That last point had City Manager Jim Westbrook a bit concerned. He insisted that the city department heads already make a “good-faith effort” to notify minority firms of upcoming projects. “It is part of our” evaluation process, Westbrook said. “But we feel it shouldn’t be mandated.”

“Unless you mandate this, it’s not going to carry any weight,” said Council member O.T. Tomes. “If there is commitment [from staff] … that would put my mind at ease.”

A 1993 study by Research and Evaluation Associates indicated that there was “sufficient evidence of discrimination in the [city’s] award of contracts and procurement of supplies, materials and services,” Asheville Finance Director Bill Schaefer wrote in a staff report. In 1996, the city and county created a joint Minority Affairs Office, and the Minority Business Commission held a retreat to consider creating a joint city-county plan.

In recent years, proponents of the plan had urged Council members to put some teeth into the policies and find a way to make staffers more consistent about notifying the Minority Affairs Office of upcoming projects. That office, in turn, notifies qualified minority businesses about bidding opportunities.

“We attempt to do what we can,” said Marilyn Bass, who resigned as minority affairs director a few days before the meeting. “But if we’re relegated to reading about [upcoming projects] in the newspaper, we can’t do our job. Department heads have knowledge of projects. They can pick up the phone and do [small-scale] contracts. That’s the good ol’ boy network.”

“There’s room for improvement,” Schaefer interjected.

“Plenty of room,” added Bass.

In response to a question from Council member Barbara Field about who signs contracts and purchase orders, Schaefer noted that Westbrook and Purchasing Director Norwood Dunn are the only ones who can make the final decisions on larger projects. Those larger and more expensive jobs — such as the multimillion-dollar renovation of the Stephens-Lee Community Center — are approved only by City Council.

“Aren’t we required to accept the low bid?” Field asked.

Schaefer and Westbrook confirmed that the city is required to hire whoever submits the lowest bid.

But Thomas emphasized that mandating department-head compliance is “a gesture of commitment. In the past, the city commitment has not been there.”

During the discussion, Council members also voiced concern about changing the commission’s makeup.

Currently, commission members represent such organizations as Women In Construction and the Council of Independent Business Owners. The new proposal would remove certain organizations, like the YMI Cultural Center and the American Institute of Architects, and replace them with organizations like the Minority Business Alliance and the NAACP. Three positions would be added for certified minority-business owners, and the total number of seats would be increased to 11.

“I’m concerned with eliminating the AIA. … And would the Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation be more representative [of minority business interests] than the NAACP?” Mayor Leni Sitnick asked.

“That’s one of the issues that has been discussed,” Schaefer replied.

Field asked whether minority-business owners would refrain from bidding on city contracts during their terms on the commission, saying, “Wouldn’t that be a conflict of interest if they did?”

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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