Asheville City Council

(for now, anyway)

Money, it seems, makes our parks go ’round.

With Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson projecting that the city will need $30 million for parks-and-recreation facilities over the next 20 years, Asheville officials almost sold Memorial Stadium for $1.4 million to local architect Robert Camille, who has discussed plans to build a medical office park and single-family homes on the property.

The money would have funded a Richmond Hill ballpark complex. The city owns 181 acres of steep, wooded property on the west side of the French Broad River.

But on March 10, Asheville City Council members unanimously rejected Camille’s bid. Still acutely aware of the desire to raise money for parks and rec, however, they subsequently voted 4-3 to consider selling the flattest, 7-acre portion of the property — which includes the stadium and its athletic fields.

“Just look at the feasibility [of selling it],” urged Vice Mayor Ed Hay. An appraiser indicated that most of the property’s value lies in the flat area, anyway, Hay pointed out. He suggested that the remaining acres could be retained by the city as a wooded park area, and that a three-acre area near the Mountside Apartments could become a neighborhood playground and picnic area.

Council members Chuck Cloninger, Tommy Sellers and Barbara Field backed his suggestion.

But Mayor Leni Sitnick voted against it, saying, “This is a memorial stadium. I’ve got a problem with selling it. Selling any portion will severely impact the neighborhood.”

“We’ll regret [selling it],” predicted Sitnick, “just like the other things we’ve given away.”

Through the years, other city-owned recreational facilities have been turned over to Buncombe County (McCormick Field, Aston Tennis Park, and a municipal golf course), and key revenue sources (water and sewer) were shunted to separate authorities, Sitnick mentioned. Besides, she said, the stadium itself was built in the 1950s to honor World War I veterans.

Council members O.T. Tomes and Earl Cobb voted with Sitnick. Said Cobb, “They’ve wrote me, they’ve called me: The majority of people in Asheville don’t want this property sold.”

That sentiment was reflected in the number of people who spoke out against the sale during the public-hearing portion of the meeting.

“This [proposed sale] is not going to meet our $30 million need,” Asheville resident Tom House declared. Representing a newly formed Memorial Stadium Coalition, House urged Council to find an “equitable solution” to the city’s ballfield needs, and not to “sacrifice” one park to fund another.

Like many who spoke against the sale, House conceded that there’s a near-desperate need for Little League baseball fields, particularly in the North Asheville district. But he argued that the city cannot fulfill the needs of one group by shortchanging others. House mentioned the soccer-field shortage, aging facilities in need of repair, inadequate facilities for other adult sports, and community support for more greenways, walking paths and open areas within the city.

White Fawn Drive resident Willie Mae Brown remarked, “I urge you to think deeply before getting rid of a centrally-accessed park.” Neighborhood kids and residents use Memorial Stadium, Brown pointed out.

Asheville-Buncombe Youth Soccer Association President Briggs Sherwood mentioned that, with the shortage of all types of fields in the Asheville area, it’s difficult to transport kids to outlying parks far from their homes and schools. He argued that Richmond Hill would not be convenient for many central-area kids.

Sherwood also added, “We don’t enjoy the turf battles we see between [people in various sports] for field space. … We support having space for all our sports needs.”

But North Asheville Little League President Tom Ascik declared, “I represent the most depressed sport … in the city.”

NALL has 300 kids in its program — and it would have more players, if it had the fields. Currently, Weaver Park is NALL’s only home field. The group must share fields with other groups for many games and practices, and its members say the field shortage has prevented them from creating a girls’ softball league.

Ascik claimed that the sale to Camille is a “practical proposal” that would alleviate the field shortage and make use of a vacant property that the city has owned for nearly 70 years.

Ascik suggested that the NALL district boundaries could be redrawn to keep central-area players closer to home fields, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Park, where local attorney Gene Ellison has organized a new but separate ball league.

Several war veterans complained that Memorial Stadium’s original purpose was being lost in the fight over parks.

“Why were we left out [of this process]?” demanded Bill Cravener, chairman of the Buncombe County Veterans Council, declaring, “Don’t you put a price on our memorial!”

“Do we sell memorials? Could we get $50 for Vance Memorial?” mused Larry Owen, a Vietnam veteran and former Little League president.

Former Asheville City Planner Erin McLoughlin admitted that Memorial Park has been “somewhat forgotten” as a park and a memorial. “But this is no reason to dispose of it,” she reasoned. McLoughlin suggested letting residents develop a financial plan to fund developing more ballfields for Little League, softball and soccer, as well as public open spaces. “Let Irby [Brinson] do his job” by giving him the money for parks, she urged.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to have sides [on this issue] when we both want more parks,” McLoughlin observed.

Kenilworth Residents’ Association President Susan Andrew agreed, suggesting that the steeper parts of Memorial Park could become the crown jewel of a park-and-greenway system around the city. She described a possible mountainside trail that could link the park with White Fawn Reservoir, which offers a 360-degree view.

Andrews proposed that the city, Little League supporters and others work together to find grants, raise money, and perhaps support a bond sale — borrowing money to pay for parks now. “Let’s not liquidate existing parks to get [new ones],” she urged.

Youthful Hand Director Elinor Earle pointed out that 50 percent of Asheville’s schoolchildren live in the central part of the city — and that most of them are low-income. “Their mothers do not take them to ballet lessons [or] athletic activities in sports-utility vehicles. [For them], those million-dollar ballfields on Richmond Hill might as well be in Tennessee,” she told Council.

“Let’s not view each other as adversaries,” Asheville resident Laura Whitley urged. “Let’s work together [and] support a parks bond.”

Field pointed out that a bond for parks might be more than the city could afford: A new federal mandate on stormwater runoff could force the city to borrow up to $40 million to fund the required infrastructure improvements later this year.

Trying to lighten the discussion, Parks and Recreation Advisory Board Chair Bill Estes joked, “Maybe we ought to take that $1.4 million and fix the sound [system] in this room.” Many speakers had difficulty using the podium microphone, which worked only when it was held right next to the mouth.

On a more serious note, Estes assured the group that park board members don’t like selling one park to fix another, any more than anyone else. “But we had a chance to modernize one for the benefit of the kids,” said Estes, a former school principal.

Estes invited everyone interested to attend the park board’s meetings, which are held at noon the second Monday of each month in the fourth-floor conference room at City Hall. “There’s no three-minute time limit for speakers,” he added, pretending to ignore Vice Mayor Hay’s handwritten sign that his time was up.

“Don’t you put that sign up,” said the equally irrepressible Minnie Jones. Jones, a long-time advocate for low-income residents, also urged Council not to sell the park. “Whenever [developers] start doing their thing, they start easing down the avenue,” she said, contending that turning the property into an office park would open the door to more development. “Look at Asheland Avenue [and] Clingman … that’s how it started,” Jones said. “Why take from the poor to give to the rich? I’m not talking about a racial thing, but equal rights for all.”

“Everyone has some valid points,” developer Camille responded at the end of the hearing. “But none of you … have called me to get my side.”

Camille promised that he wasn’t considering “the pancake method of development” for the steeply wooded Memorial property — just an office park surrounded by single-family homes up the mountainside. “Development doesn’t have to be bad,” he added, citing the Asheville examples set by E.W. Grove and George Vanderbilt.

Concerned about Camille’s development ideas and the impact on the neighborhood, Tomes responded, “I cannot in good faith support this sale. … If we had the [new Parks and Recreation] master plan before us and had a price tag [on future needs], that would would help.”

Also concerned about development on the mountainside, both Cloninger and Hay expressed some interest in deed-restricting the land — limiting what any future owners could do with the steeper, wooded area of the Memorial Park property. In effect, deed restrictions could be used to require parts of the land to be left green.

Hay.mentioned that he was “particularly taken” with the greenway proposal to link Memorial Park with White Fawn Reservoir, saying, “I’d like to preserve the woods [above] the stadium, not sell them.”

Sitnick remarked that the whole debate has just strengthened her belief that the city’s Unified Development Ordinance should have a parks zoning designation to protect public spaces.

When Field expressed concern about the city’s mounting financial problems, Sitnick interjected, “You just made made my case.”

If the city finds itself in a budget crunch, Sitnick argued, Asheville will need a parks zoning designation in the UDO to protect certain public lands from ever being sold.

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

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.