Support wavers for BCTDA-Sports Commission merger

NEW FUNDING: Vic Isley, TDA president and CEO of Explore Asheville, says that this is the first year that the visitor lodging tax will support the Festivals and Cultural Events Fund. Photo by Chase Davis

Despite a consultant’s recommendations to merge the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority and the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, BCTDA President and CEO of Explore Asheville Vic Isley said at the Sept. 27 BCTDA board meeting she intends to vote to keep the Sports Commission independent. As one-fourth of the governing members responsible for making the decision, Isley’s pivot puts the merger in limbo.

The Sports Commission was created as an independent body in 2010 by the City of Asheville, Buncombe County, UNC Asheville and the BCTDA to bring more sporting events to the area. Each entity appoints a member to the commission’s governing board. Isley represents the BCTDA, City Council member Sage Turner represents the city, County Commissioner Amanda Edwards represents the county, and Athletic Director Janet Cone represents UNCA. The commission also has a 24-member advisory board.

The idea for a merger came from the Huddle Up Group, a Phoenix-based sports tourism consulting firm, hired by the BCTDA. The suggestion to merge was strongly opposed by the commission’s advisory board, which voted 10-0 against it at its Sept. 18 meeting. Ten members abstained from voting, and four were not present. Board Chair Stephen Zubrod pointed to the commission’s previous successes, such as bringing both the NCAA 2023 Southern Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament and the U.S. Billie Jean King Cup tennis tournament to Asheville as reasons for retaining independence.

“We want to stay independent so we can fulfill our entire focus,” Zubrod said at the meeting. “When you merge a smaller organization into a bigger, broader corporate entity, that clarity of what you are trying to achieve gets muddled.”

However, members of the BCTDA argue that the commission’s success is largely due to its funds, which have increased to $230,000 annually, far surpassing the $45,000 annual allocations each from the city and county.

“Since the formation of the Sports Commission, Explore Asheville has maintained its own sports initiatives, as well as been a funding partner [for the Sports Commission]” said Isley. “Over time, we have increased investment levels and become the primary investor, as they never diversified funding sources as originally intended by the founding members.”

While initially supporting Huddle Up’s recommendation, Isley noted that the negative reaction from the advisory board and the public led to her decision to support the commission’s independence.

“From a relationship standpoint, it would do more harm than good to take the recommendation,” Isley said. “Does it make all the sense in the world? Yes, it does.”

According to Huddle Up’s study, sports commissions typically are not completely independent from development authorities, with 70% being fully controlled and 12%-14% working under a blended model. Completely independent sports commissions are usually found in cities with major league teams, such as Charlotte.

However, Isley noted that if the commission remains independent, the BCTDA plans to bring “funding more in line with funding from other founding members.”

“At the end of the day, this board has a responsibility,” said BCTDA board member HP Patel. “We can’t just throw money wherever we want, and we need to show results for our funding.”

Several other board members were disappointed by the reaction the merger recommendation received. Board member Larry Crosby called the situation “an absolute shame.”

“We had very good intentions and we were trying to do the right thing. This is not a dirty business, and we always have great intentions. It’s a shame that it went that way,” Crosby added.

The four members of the Sports Commission’s governing board were scheduled to vote on the possible merger on Oct. 3. The meeting had been rescheduled from Sept. 28. Should the merger go through, the Sports Commission would keep its funding but lose executive control over sporting events and marketing.

In addition to voting on the merger, Isley said the governing members may look at bylaw changes to expand the governing board beyond four members. She would like to see more voices involved in the commission’s future decisions.


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About Chase Davis
Chase Davis is an Asheville-based reporter working for Mountain Xpress. He was born and raised in Georgia and holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from LaGrange College. Follow me @ChaseDavis0913

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