A long-standing request by residents of the East End/Valley Street neighborhood for a six-lane competitive track at Memorial Stadium was finally approved by a unanimous vote of Asheville City Council March 22.
As presented by Asheville Parks and Recreation Director D. Tyrell McGirt, the 400-meter, six-lane track comes as part of a $4.4 million second phase of improvements to the stadium and adjoining Mountainside Park. Work will also include the installation of new playground equipment, as well as the replacement of old bathroom facilities, storage buildings and bleachers. (Documents for the project were not posted to Council’s online agenda until Monday afternoon, well after the Friday release of other items.)
Neighborhood residents had been asking for a new track as part of renovations to Memorial Stadium since 2017, after Asheville voters approved a $74 million bond issue — $17 million of which was allocated to improve parks and recreation facilities — in 2016. But the first phase of renovations to the nearly 100-year-old stadium, which began in 2017 and was completed in January, did not include that element. Upgrades instead featured new artificial turf and improved drainage for the field, as well as the construction of an accessible ramp for the bleachers and pedestrian access along the ends of the field.
The stadium was built in 1925 and served the historically Black East End/Valley Street and Oakhurst communities for decades. The facility originally featured a 12-foot-wide cinder track, but by the late 1970s, the track had been paved with asphalt and was no longer in use for competitive running.
Five people spoke in favor of updates that included the track, including Renée White, president of the East/Valley Street Neighborhood Association. She claimed that the city had overlooked the neighborhood’s desires in favor of stakeholders outside the community — including the Asheville City Soccer Club, which began using the field in 2016 — and that the track represented a longstanding want from residents who had dealt with visitor litter and parking issues.
“I’m a native Ashvillean. I’m a native East Ender. I love my community. And I’ve watched all of this happen over the years, Black people just being pushed out,” White said. “We’re not saying that we don’t want you in the neighborhood. Come and play, sure. But respect our community, respect our neighborhood and do the right thing.”
Building the track would reduce the newly resurfaced field’s width by 5 yards, which local soccer advocates have said would limit its ability to host professional matches. During public comment on the proposal, Asheville resident Frank Balentine argued that the new field’s dimensions should be maintained.
“The people playing soccer, the ones participating in playing, and the spectators — there’s sometimes 1,000 to 2,000 people from the local community [at a game]. And they have a wide range of race, age and gender. Soccer at Memorial is an inclusive activity and should be strongly supported by the city,” Balentine said. “Memorial Stadium is a 100-year-old stadium, a 100-year-old city event center, and should be maintained as such and not diminished in its capacity.”
City staff members are now tasked with developing a design and construction schedule for the project and identifying possible funding sources. McGirt said that, although $1 million in bond proceeds was ready to spend on the project, a $3.4 million funding gap remained. Council member Sage Turner suggested that the city should look into applying for a Tourism Product Development Fund grant from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority when applications open.
Meanwhile, Council member Antanette Mosley, herself a Black native of the East End neighborhood, reflected on the stadium’s recent history.
“We came this close to not even having that property there to be the subject matter of this conversation,” she said, referencing a 1997 discussion by Council over whether to sell Memorial Stadium. “My hope is that those here today advise your children and grandchildren of the history of this property … and be prepared for this issue to potentially come back up again.”