It took two tries for the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to approve spending nearly $23 million over 20 years for Asheville’s McCormick Field Centennial Restoration & Capital Improvements Project at its July 26 meeting.
The motion to fund the project failed the first time, on a 6-2 vote, because it required a supermajority of seven out of nine votes of the full board. (The board’s ninth voting member, Michael Lusick, was not present.) It passed 7-1 when the board voted again 25 minutes later. Board member Andrew Celwyn said before the first vote that he did not understand why Major League Baseball was asking local municipalities to fund the project in the first place.
“The top 10 baseball players in MLB have all been given a $30 million salary, but (the organization) is not willing to even give half as much to help make these improvements for player amenities,” Celwyn said. “If this was something that was fully funded and beneficial for the city, then I would reconsider, but it is hard for me to give charity to baseball.”
Celwyn also expressed concern about how the project would be funded. “The TDA has never made a commitment before to spend occupancy taxes from future years to fund a current project,” Celwyn said. “Also, this seems to be a violation, at least in spirit, of the bylaws of the Tourism Product Development Fund regarding funding for-profit entities. While this money is somewhat arguably going to the city of Asheville, it’s mostly benefiting the Asheville Tourists, the Houston Astros and Major League Baseball, with all three being for-profit entities.”
After Celwyn’s comment, the board took its first vote, which failed 6-2 with board member Scott Patel also voting no. During a discussion between votes, Patel said he believed that the funds could be better spent elsewhere.
“The city is requesting this money (for McCormick field), but wouldn’t it be nice if they had requested money for affordable housing instead?” Patel said. “That impacts tourism, too, because people in the industry need affordable places to live. I am not opposed to the baseball stadium, but sometimes there are bigger priorities.”
Vic Isley, president and CEO of Explore Asheville and the BCTDA, reminded the board that funding from the TPDF had specific parameters intended to help increase overnight visitation as opposed to affordable housing. She also stressed what the investment could mean for the BCTDA moving forward.
“This is the first opportunity for us to demonstrate a debt service project and potentially be able to do that more times over for this community over the long term,” Isley said.
After some back-and-forth, Patel agreed to vote again, this time in favor of the investment.
The BCTDA’s investment for McCormick Field depends on the city and the Tourists franchise meeting additional terms negotiated by the TPDF committee. The BCTDA requested naming rights to a concourse or similar area within the baseball field complex, giving Explore Asheville staff the right to rent the space for interested groups and requiring the Tourists to host one hospitality night each season allowing local hospitality workers to attend a game for free or at a reduced price.
“This is truly a historic moment for this board,” Isley said after the vote. “The decision today shows our commitment to improving community assets. This has been a long, detailed process, but I am proud that we are continuing to support the legacy of baseball in Asheville and Buncombe County through this monumental partnership.”
As reported by Xpress, McCormick Field has been home to a minor league baseball team for 64 years. The current Tourists franchise, owned by the family of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and DeWine Seeds Silver Dollar Baseball, brings in roughly $9.8 million in local spending annually for Buncombe County.
At the beginning of this year, the Tourists’ owners requested about $30 million from the city of Asheville, Buncombe County and the BCTDA to pay for renovations to meet updated Major League Baseball standards. In an effort to keep the Tourists in Asheville, the city pledged $20 million over the next 20 years, while the county agreed to pay $5 million over the same period. The BCTDA was the last agency to agree to support the project.
The city of Asheville approved a $3.7 million contract with Ewing Cole Inc. to design and build improvements at the field at the July 25 City Council meeting. With funding from the BCTDA now approved, construction is expected to begin in September 2024 and be completed by March 2026.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 31.