Professional baseball games at McCormick Field after many decades remain vital to the fabric of our community. Nowhere else do I see such a joyfully diverse mix of people – families, retirees, young adults, people of various cultures and backgrounds – all with smiles on their faces and enjoying being together. Places and moments like these are disappearing in American life and in our own community. McCormick is a cultural treasure, and we owe it to ourselves to extend its life and function.
During my time on City Council a few years back I came to know the city-owned facility and its operations well. Having looked “under the hood,” I am certain of the need for improvements. But can we afford the $30 million in necessary upgrades, and from where would that money come?
It seems clear that funding from the Tourism Product Development Fund and/or the new Legacy Investments From Tourism Fund of the Buncombe TDA must be central to any solution. Note that since McCormick Field is an Asheville-owned facility, the city would have to seek a grant from TPDF/LIFT.
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Consider this: TDA anticipates tax collections of about $40 million this year, sourced from visitors who stay overnight in our community. That amount seems destined to grow going forward, so let’s conservatively assume average revenues over the next decade of perhaps $45 million per year.
State law now mandates that one-third of those revenues be invested in TPDF/LIFT grants, and that could result in an average of $15 million available per year, or $150 million over 10 years, across the two funds. Since those grants would require dollar-for-dollar matching from other sources, the result is that $300 million would be invested in eligible projects in that timeframe.
Considering which potential TPDF partners are capable of providing such matching fund amounts, two clearly stand out: Buncombe County and City of Asheville governments. Nonprofits and the much-smaller other municipal governments will continue to partner with TPDF as they’ve been able to in the past, but the reality is that their limited revenue streams won’t realistically support the required matching amounts.
So let’s assume that up to 80 percent of the next decade’s potential spending under TPDF partnering – $240 million – can only be achieved through the TPDF-Buncombe-Asheville nexus. That’s a plentiful pot of available money for addressing a broad array of strategic priorities, and the McCormick project would be equal to 12.5% of the total. More than $200 million could be available for the other critical priorities.
Project eligibility for TPDF/LIFT funding has been recently liberalized under state law to address a mix of projects that both support visitor attraction and broader community needs. My own hope is that under the new legislation, significant funding can be routed to support the needs of our workforce that supports the hospitality industry – particularly housing. But in any case there still would be plenty available to address McCormick needs.
The Asheville Tourists and McCormick Field are a productive part of our local economy. Shutting down McCormick and ending professional baseball here would have a significant negative economic impact in comparison and leave us with an orphaned stadium facility that would be nearly impossible to repurpose in a financially sustainable way.
Some in the community question whether a for-profit entity – the Asheville Tourists – should be funding the improvements solely. The economics of minor league baseball make it so that a stadium operator in a very small market like Buncombe County has zero chance of being able to fund significant stadium improvements like this from its revenues. Public funding is thus required. And after all, McCormick is a publicly owned facility.
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As for next steps, it is urgent that our elected leaders and the senior staff members at Buncombe County and the City of Asheville put their heads together with TDA/TPDF leaders to for a viable funding strategy. Doing that will require objectivity, trust, pragmatism, and especially some big-picture strategic thinking. It can be done in a way that honors the need for awards from TPDF to remain competitive and based on merit. All this is no small task. I sense that our leaders appreciate that challenge, and I wish them the best as they undertake it.
Marc Hunt is a former member of Asheville City Council where he served as vice-mayor and chairman of the finance committee. He is a frequent baseball fan at McCormick Field.
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