“Given the number of baseball folks here, we should probably sing the national anthem,” quipped Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer as City Council kicked off its March 14 meeting. Those spectators got the win they were hoping for after Council voted unanimously to commit up to $20 million over 20 years for renovations to McCormick Field, the home of the minor league Asheville Tourists. (Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore was absent and did not participate in the vote.)
Before the vote, Council member Sage Turner noted that she and her colleagues had been sent more than 1,700 emails on funding for the ballpark. “We received 35 pages of public comments,” she said. “There were three that did not support it, and then all the others did support finding a way to fund this.”
“Let’s play ball,” Turner added, before moving to support the funding measure.
Council’s decision represents the first of several funding commitments the Tourists are seeking to bring McCormick Field up to Major League Baseball standards, a requirement for the team to stay in the city. According to a city presentation, the money would pay for improvements to the stadium’s clubhouse, construct facilities for female umpires and other baseball staff, expand the concourse and cover deferred maintenance, among other updates.
Although the language approved by Council allows for a commitment of up to $1 million per year, Chris Corl, Asheville’s director of community and regional entertainment facilities, said the “worst-case scenario” for the city would involve spending roughly $875,000 per year. That figure, he continued, could go down if the project receives additional funding from the state of North Carolina.
The total cost of the project, including interest payments on borrowing for the work, was estimated at more than $56.1 million in a March 7 presentation to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. Asheville plans to share that expense with other funding partners, though commitments have not yet been secured.
Under the scenario presented by Corl, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority would contribute $1.4 million annually for 15 years, as well as a one-time allocation of $1.95 million previously earmarked for a streetscape project on Coxe Avenue. County government would chip in $250,000 annually for 20 years; the commissioners are slated to vote on that funding at their next meeting, Tuesday, March 21.
The Tourists themselves would pay an average of about $469,000 per year toward the project for 20 years. And attendees at baseball games would also pick up part of the tab through a new 50-cent “facility fee” to be added to each ticket.
Public comment during the meeting echoed the sentiments of those who had written to Council, with nine of the 13 speakers supporting the McCormick Field renovations. But four speakers voiced concern about taxpayers footing the bill for the repairs, saying that the city’s budget has fallen short on initiatives such as expanded transit services and public safety investments.
“I just don’t think it’s the responsibility of the city anymore to do this,” said resident and former mayoral candidate Jonathan Wainscott. “I want my streets paved.”
Council hears update on ARPA projects
Council also heard an update on 24 projects funded by $24.9 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds. Asheville received the money from the federal COVID-19 relief package in 2021.
After narrowing funding priorities, including affordable housing and workforce development investments, Council voted on specific projects in May. About $1.4 million has yet to be awarded; federal rules require that funding be obligated toward projects by the end of 2024, and spending to be completed by Dec. 31, 2026.
Kim Marmon-Saxe, project manager for the ARPA funds, said that 18 of the initiatives were currently underway and six projects were still moving through the contracting process. Nearly $7 million of the awarded funds has been spent to date.