Tolling the bell for Memorial Stadium

Irby Brinson may be feelinga little battered after his idea that the city buy the French Broad Golf Center fell afoul of torrential rains — which flooded the facility just as Asheville City Council members were debating whether to pay $3.5 million for it.

But sometimes, there’s no rest for the weary. Having weathered that debacle, Brinson — the director of Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department — now has a host of folks up in arms about another real-estate deal he’s recommending: the sale of Memorial Stadium, which is located behind McCormick Field in central Asheville, to local architect Robert Camille for $1.4 million. The deal would include the facility and 21 acres of surrounding land.

Camille proposes to build offices on the property’s six developable acres, while preserving the old Memorial Stadium arch, and allowing Asheville Tourist spectators to park at the office complex while attending games.

Brinson has suggested that the city use most of that $1.4 million to develop a multi-field ballpark on a portion of a 181-acre parcel the city owns on Richmond Hill. He wants to siphon off $200,000 to build a playground, walking trail and community park on the old Mountainside Apartments ball field — a three-acre property adjacent to Memorial Stadium.

The proposed Richmond Hill facility would serve about 500 kids. Three hundred of them play ball in the North Asheville Little League (and have just one field to call their own); another 200 play youth football in the West Asheville Sports League. The facility would also accommodate adult groups that now currently use Memorial Stadium for Ultimate Frisbee, rugby and volleyball.

It seems like a gift-horse of a deal — especially considering that the city’s Parks and Recreation Department projects needing nearly $30 million for improvements to its parks, fields and facilities over the next 15 years.

But opponents of the deal argue that it’s not fair to them to give up a centrally located park in exchange for a north Asheville facility. Instead, they suggest that the city simply fix up Memorial Stadium and the Mountainside field.

“Tell me, how am I supposed to do that?” Brinson asks. Each year for the past few years, his department has identified $2 million worth of needed repairs and maintenance. But last year’s budget allocated only about $500,000. “It’s an issue of finances,” he explains. “We don’t have the money. Give me $1.4 million, and I’ll build [new] ball fields at Memorial Stadium.”

“I’ve no doubt that the North Asheville Little League needs ball-field space,” concedes Ultimate Frisbee representative Alan Kirkpatrick. “But sacrificing one [park] to serve another is bad planning.”

He insists that Memorial Stadium is a viable, crucial park for central Asheville. “Every time we play [Frisbee], neighborhood kids are here, playing in the [volleyball] sand pit, riding their bikes, playing pick-up football. This field serves a vital function in town,” maintains Kirkpatrick, who lives downtown.

Willie Mae Brown, who lives in the adjacent White Pines neighborhood, agrees. She remembers watching high-school football games at Memorial, back in the days when her alma mater, Stephens-Lee, still served the African-American community. “This is a neighborhood park, going years back,” she asserts.

Brian Peterson, president of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, is concerned that offices and/or apartments might be built on the steep hills surrounding the flat, 6-acre field area. The 21-acre property, zoned for institutional use, could theoretically host various kinds of development.

Brown echoes that concern, asking, “If this park is sold, what impact would that have on my neighborhood?”

Downtown resident Meg MacLeod, an advocate for walkable communities, notes, “Memorial Stadium is more accessible by walking, by biking and by public transportation than [the] Richmond Hill [property] could ever be.”

On the day the coalition, along with Kirkpatrick and other supporters, held a rally to oppose the stadium’s sale, it was clear that some of the kids riding their bikes there would have had a hard time getting to Richmond Hill, which sits on the other side of the French Broad River.

“If they sell it,” said 9-year-old Bruce Smith, who lives near Memorial, “there won’t be a park downtown I can go to.”

Anthony Lynch, a 12-year-old who plays West Asheville Youth Football at Memorial, added, “My mom works a lot during the day. She wouldn’t be able to get me over there to Richmond Hill very often.”

The two boys and their friend Keedrick Jiles explained that they ride bikes — race them, even — at Memorial, throw the football around, and hang out there after school. Asked what he would tell Asheville City Council members if he could, Lynch replied, “This is a landmark. Please don’t sell it.”

Brinson points out that a repeatedly unreported part of the plan calls for redesigning the adjacent Mountainside ball field, including such amenities as playground equipment, picnic tables and a walking trail — all of which would be paid for with the $1.4 million that Camille has offered for Memorial.

“Everybody has an idea about parks — put one here, fix one there. … I respect their opinions,” says Brinson. “But tell me how to do it all.”

Several of the sale opponents suggest a citywide bond referendum: If residents approve the idea, borrow big bucks for parks.

Brinson smiles at the thought of getting $30 million to spend. Among comparable-sized cities in the country, Asheville ranks fifth from last in the acres of park lands and facilities it offers residents. Per capita, Brinson notes, Asheville spends just $39 per year on parks — way below such cities as Wilmington or Cary.

With a bond referendum, there would be money to develop a mountainside trail system from Memorial to the old water reservoir above St. Joseph’s Hospital. There would be money for much-needed soccer fields, ballparks for girls’ fast-pitch softball, youth football, Frisbee and rugby. There would be money to consolidate the city’s community centers and renovate them.

But will it happen?

North Asheville Little League President Tom Ascik is skeptical about the city’s floating a bond referendum any time soon — and about voters approving it. “We’d support that,” he affirms. But how can the city pass up the “free deal” offered by the sale of Memorial Stadium, he asks. “To reject [that] and wait for a citywide bond referendum is not … practical.” Stressing the need for little-league parks now, he adds, “According to District Administration of Little League, we have the worst facilities of any league in western North Carolina.”

The Asheville league spreads its games between Weaver Park — its only home field — Martin Luther King Jr. Park (an adult softball field), and West Asheville, Ascik reports. “That restricts our program,” he notes, saying he’d like to add girls’ softball to the league roster, as well as allow more kids to play baseball.

But Asheville resident Randolph Horner asserts, “It takes years to develop turf for a field.” Even if the city started work immediately on the Richmond Hill site, he estimates, “It’ll be the year 2000 or 2001 before kids could play there.”

Brinson disagrees, saying that turf at Richmond Hill could be ready for play by late 1999 — with a little cooperation from the weather. Besides, he notes, Camille has agreed to let the city keep using Memorial Stadium’s field until that time — for free.

“We don’t have to do everything the Little League wants us to do,” counters Horner. He suggests the city already has enough flat land on which to develop ball fields for baseball and soccer — and that Council members should consider those options. He also wonders whether the Richmond Hill property — much of which is steep and thickly wooded — might cost more than $1.4 million to develop.

Brinson thinks not. And to back up his suggestion to sell Memorial Stadium and use the proceeds to develop Richmond Hill, he had city staff and an independent consultant each provide estimates on developing Richmond Hill. Both estimates came in well under $1.4 million. And a geo-technical survey found little surface rock that would hamper site development: Of 16 borings, only three turned up rock, one 17 feet below the surface, another at 27 feet, and one at the surface — but all of these were a considerable distance from the area that would be graded, Brinson reports.

Whatever Council decides, says Brinson, “What I don’t want to be lost here is the big picture: that $30-million need. The longer you put those needs off, the more they compound over the years.”

Brinson notes that a long-range master plan for city parks-and-recreation facilities is near completion. He urges residents to attend a public hearing on Feb. 17 — probably at the Civic Center — to voice their opinions on how the city should meet its needs in the coming years.

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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