The Asheville Tourists are rounding third on a funding deal to stay in town after the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners agreed March 21 to pitch in up to $5 million over 20 years for upgrades to city-owned McCormick Field.
With the board’s 6-1 vote of support, the Tourists will likely meet an April 1 deadline to submit a financial plan to Major League Baseball detailing how they will pay for facility upgrades that are required for the team to stay in Asheville. (Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara was the lone dissenter; she did not speak about her vote during the meeting or respond to a subsequent request for comment.) All that remains to finalize the deal is support from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority and a new lease for the club.
“We’re excited. This means the community is committed to keeping minor league baseball in Asheville. We’re great family entertainment, and now Buncombe County families will be able to enjoy the Tourists for generations to come,” team president Brian DeWine told Xpress after the meeting.
The county money supplements a commitment of up to $20 million from the city of Asheville approved unanimously by City Council March 14. The overall funding plan — which details more than $56.1 million in spending, including for interest payments on borrowed funds — remains contingent on annual contributions of $1.4 million over 15 years from the BCTDA, as well as a one-time contribution of $1.95 million from TDA funds previously allocated for a streetscape project on Coxe Avenue. The Tourists are slated to pay about $9.4 million over 20 years as part of a new lease agreement.
The city is scheduled to present that ask to the TDA in May, after which the authority’s Tourism Product Development Fund Committee is expected to make a recommendation on spending, according to TDA spokesperson Ashley Greenstein. DeWine said the MLB will accept the funding plan prior to that recommendation but could take action if TDA doesn’t commit the money.
Buncombe leaders also have directed their lobbyists at the N.C. General Assembly to seek backing for McCormick Field. Prior to their approval of county funds, Commissioner Al Whitesides and board Chair Brownie Newman asked if state support could lower the county’s financial commitment.
“I want this project to be successful, but I also want it done in a way that’s as responsible to the city and county taxpayers as possible,” Newman said.
“I hear people say, ‘I love going to the games, I love it, please keep it.’ I don’t hear people say, ‘I need a completely new fancy stadium,’” he continued. “I want to structure it in a way where people don’t feel like they’ve got the money, just go spend it. I would like for them to look for ways to not need to spend that contingency money.”
Tim Love, Buncombe’s director of economic development and governmental relations, told the board he was hopeful that the project would get state support but that the matter was far from settled. “We have seen positive things in the governor’s budget, so we’ll see where that lands,” he said.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s 2023-25 recommended budget includes $70 million in grants to local governments for “facility upgrades, infrastructure, equipment, marketing and advertising” for multiple uses including minor league baseball.
If the state money doesn’t come through, DeWine told Xpress, the city is prepared to levy a facility fee of 50 to 75 cents on every ticket sold to make up for any funding gaps.
Buncombe’s 911 call center workers to get stipend pay
Commissioners voted unanimously to provide crisis stipend pay for public safety communications call center workers because of high call volumes and critical issues with staffing. 911 employees who have been on the job for at least six months will receive an extra $8-$20 per hour, with more money awarded for night and weekend shifts. (The starting pay for a 911 dispatch operator, according to a recent county job listing, is $18.90-$20.46 per hour.)
The 911 call center has become dependent on off-duty first responders from other departments to meet minimum staffing requirements, according to a presentation by Rafael Baptista, Buncombe’s director of strategy and innovation. That leads to undertrained workers on the call center floor and a lack of supervision, he said.
It also leads to slower emergency response. Baptista said that 90% of Buncombe’s fire and emergency medical services calls have a dispatch time of 221 seconds or less. By comparison, the national standard for sending out a unit after receiving a call is within 64 seconds 95% of the time. While the county’s limited availability of ambulances plays a role in that difference, he explained, staffing shortages also contribute.
The extra pay is expected to cost the county about $49,000 every two weeks and will last until the 911 center fills 67% of staffing slots for three months with its own staff alone, Baptista said. Moving forward, added Chair Newman, the county should also reconsider its salaries for 911 employees.
“We really need to look at the base pay. What do we need to do to recruit and retain for the long term?” Newman asked. “We’re kind of in a different era. It’s never been an easy job, but it’s probably tougher now than it’s ever been.”