A Cadillac would be nice, but Asheville may have to settle for a solid, reliable Ford Escort, so to speak, when it comes to its parks-and-recreation programs.
Some say the city “needs” $57 million for its long-range parks-and-rec improvement plan, which calls for new parks and upgraded facilities. But so far the money hasn’t been located.
City Manager Jim Westbrook put it simply at May 12 Council meeting. “We can’t afford it,” he said.
Borrowing just $1 million would cost the city $83,000 per year over 20 years to pay off the interest and principal, explained City Finance Director Bill Schaefer. Multiply that figure by 57, and residents’ tax bills might have to be increased by 14 cents per $100 assessed value if Council decides to borrow the money, he estimated.
“We won’t ever recommend that,” Schaefer assured Council.
And Council members and city residents wouldn’t go for it, anyway, if comments at the public hearing were any indication.
“In general, we support the plan,” said Kenilworth Resident Association President Susan Andrews. But “there’s a lot of alarm at the price tag.” She suggested that Council allow the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods to help set priorities for what improvements the city can afford, then educate the public on the many ways available to the city for raising the money, such as a combination of bonds (borrowed money), grants, user fees, corporate sponsorships, donations and other sources.
Western North Carolina Alliance Director Brownie Newman also called for Council to trim the plan and set priorities. He suggested that the first thing to cut from the long-range plan is a proposed golf course on the city’s Richmond Hill property — a $5 million project that several residents also objected to.
The 181 wooded acres at Richmond Hill represent “a great opportunity for an area park,” said Newman. “People in Asheville need the opportunity to go for a walk in the woods without going out of the city.”
Newman also recommended that the city drop the large recreation centers outlined in the plan. Such facilities would duplicate existing gyms and indoor pools, such as the ones at the YMCA, the YWCA, Westgate Spa and elsewhere, Brown argued.
Other speakers urged Council to keep the golf-course proposal alive. “It would be totally beneficial for the city to get into the golf business,” said Jim Orr, chairman of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. He argued that revenue raised from golf fees could be used to pay off the debt for other parks-and-recreation projects.
Some residents countered that the environment might be harmed by a golf course along the French Broad River because of pesticide and herbicide runoff. Orr responded that, with proper design and maintenance, chemical contamination would not be a problem. He also said that many newer golf courses avoid chemical fertilizers and herbicides.
Orr has helped develop private golf courses.
Environmental activist Andrew George questioned how much revenue the city could realistically expect from the course, and he remained convinced that harmful chemicals would pollute the area and the river. He insisted that the city should not disturb Richmond Hill, which he called “one of Asheville’s last intact green spaces.”
Resident Ann Wankel, on the other hand, said she and her husband were delighted at the prospect of a golf course near their home. “For once, my tax dollars [would] go for something I enjoy,” said Wankel.
Resident Martha Walz urged Council to consider the recreation needs of the elderly and those who don’t participate in team sports. Other proposals for Richmond Hill include a youth ballfield complex, which Walz suggested could bring extra noise and traffic into an area with a nursing home. “You know, children aren’t very quiet when they play,” said Walz, a retired physical educator.
Noting that the word “recreation” comes from “re-create,” Walz urged Council to consider the city’s diverse recreation needs. “We ought to consider [the needs] of more people, and do it more cheaply,” she said.
Mary Ann Peine, a member of the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, urged Council to coordinate the Asheville Parks and Recreation Department 2015 Master Plan with the city’s forthcoming greenway plan.
Asheville resident Helen Morrison remarked, “I want [the city] to stay out of debt.” She suggested that Council focus on improving the city’s existing parks — and paying for improvements as they go, rather than borrowing money.
Parks-and-rec consultant Gary Stewart interpreted the evening’s comments as positive. “I’m hearing overall support for the plan,” he said. “I’m also hearing how diverse a community” Asheville is. Stewart noted that Council will have to balance all those needs.
To that end, Council members took the first step in implementing at least part of the master plan.
Council member Chuck Cloninger urged four steps:
• Approve the “concept,” without actually endorsing the overall plan.
• Coordinate the parks-and-rec master plan with the soon-to-be-completed greenways master plan.
• Set priorities on what the city can realistically achieve by trimming down the plan’s “Cadillac wish list.”
• Come up with a plan for pitching those priorities — and their possible funding sources — to the public.
Council members agreed to the suggestions. Said Council member Barbara Field, “Let city staff crunch the numbers.”