Tourism board approves over $6 million for three projects

BIG INVESTMENTS: The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority approved new funding projects that include upgrades to the Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville and an outdoor covered equestrian arena for the WNC Agricultural Center, as well as new turf, lighting and a playground for the Enka Recreation Destination. Photo by Chase Davis

The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority board unanimously approved $6.1 million for three tourism projects during its Oct. 25 meeting. Vic Isley, BCTDA president and CEO of Explore Asheville, said that the vote ended a “historic” investment year for the TDA’s Tourism Product Development Fund.

“Combined with our investment into McCormick Field, this marks the largest annual investment of TPDF funds since it was first established nearly 20 years ago,” Isley said. “We are funding projects that are not only going to increase tourism to the area but also have lasting impacts on our local community members.”

The approved projects include upgrades to the Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville and an outdoor covered equestrian arena for the WNC Agricultural Center as well as new turf, lighting and a playground for the Enka Recreation Destination.

When applications for the fund opened earlier this year, 10 applications submitted a combined total request of $18.4 million. Only $7.98 million was available to fund projects for the 2023 cycle. Seven applications moved to phase II, but only six submitted applications. Of those, three were recommended for funding allocation, as presented by Tiffany Thacker, director of grants for Explore Asheville:

  • Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville: nearly $1.59 million 
    • The Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville upgrades project will include improvements to the facility that will help attract annual arena-sized events such as concerts, performing arts and sporting events. The improvements will include a new multiuse sports court for volleyball and pickleball, as well as rigging enhancements, concert lighting and audio/visual, and network improvements to increase the arena’s internet infrastructure. The project began in June and is estimated to be completed by May 2025.
  • Equine facility at WNC Agricultural Center: $500,000
    • The WNC Agriculture Center’s equine facility modernization project includes capital improvements to several existing facilities, including the replacement and renovations of barns as well as the addition of a 32,500-square-foot outdoor covered arena. The project is expected to begin next June and is estimated to be completed by January 2026.
  • Enka Recreation Destination Phase II: just over $4 million 
    • Phase 2 of Buncombe County’s Enka Recreation Destination project includes turfing three fields and lighting four fields; a new playground that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act; park ranger facility renovations to bathrooms, a first-aid station and storage; and the replacement of an outdated picnic shelter with a new lighted structure. The project is expected to begin in January 2025 and is estimated to be completed by June 2027.

Board reaction

Several board members commented on the positive impact that the projects will have on local tourism. However, board member HP Patel questioned if there were more meaningful projects that were overlooked.

“I mean, these projects are great, but what are our long-term goals as far as TPDF?” Patel asked. “For example, we have a big issue with [the] Thomas Wolfe [auditorium].”

Board member Matthew Lehman reminded Patel that the board can only make allocations based on the projects submitted for consideration.

“To me, it’s similar to the workforce housing issue,” Lehman continued. “I have ideas of what I’d like to do, but we as a body have to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a project based on what third-party nonprofits submit.”

Isley said that discussions are ongoing about funding major projects.

“We have been in discussions and meetings with the county and with the city and with all three parties to look at a longer trajectory of what are the priority projects coming down, including Thomas Wolfe,” Isley said.

Following the discussion, TDA board members voted to approve the projects for funding, which passed unanimously. Funds for the projects will be allocated as they are needed throughout each project’s development process.


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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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