Asheville – Having heard an earful from concerned citizens a couple weeks ago, the Buncombe County Commissioners arranged for a presentation explaining why their agreement with the Asheville Buncombe Youth Soccer Association (ABYSA) was in the public interest. Complaints had come mostly from representatives of the Asheville Shield Football Club, another group that provides opportunities for kids to play soccer. They argued that they pay taxes to support the Buncombe County Sports Park, but the contract the county has with ABYSA does not allow them access to those fields.
Buncombe County Recreation Services Director Payton Daisy O’Conner (she/her) shared that the county had a policy of soliciting requests for proposals to authorize vendors to operate and essentially sublease space to other organizations in return for providing maintenance. Such agreements are used, among other purposes, for athletic fields. In these agreements, the county maintains the wider park area around the fields in question.
O’Conner explained these arrangements offset the county’s costs of operating facilities and reduce its liabilities. The vendors provide field maintenance, scheduling, coaching, volunteer management, uniform acquisition, trash cleanup, concession management, advertising, accounting, risk management, and other services the county would otherwise support. Outsourcing, she said, provides better recreation opportunities and attracts more tourists than the county, which is short on resources, could provide.
O’Conner crunched some numbers, estimating it would cost the county $2 million to take over the work ABYSA is providing; but members of the public would later dispute his assumptions and calculations. Regardless, the county would hold an open bidding process to be scored in accordance with its procurement policies. Qualified applicants would be nonprofits knowledgeable in field maintenance, scheduling, and destination marketing; and capable of providing a smooth transition between contracts.
TJ Finger said, contrary to the wording of the agreement, there were no open lines of communication for other teams to schedule time on the fields at the Buncombe County Sports Park. By controlling the public playing fields, ABYSA was choosing what sports kids in Buncombe get to play. Unfortunately, not all families have the time or money to commit their children to ABYSA’s two-day-a-week requirement. In addition, ABYSA may be responsible for maintaining the lawn, but it is full of weeds and looks nothing like the Asheville Tourists’ lawn; but now taxpayers are buying ABYSA artificial turf and field lighting that doesn’t benefit kids not enrolled in their program.
Andrew Zetterholm said O’Conner’s line about the contract providing an opportunity to “seed and grow” athletic activities meant the county gets to choose winners and losers by, in practice, giving ABYSA exclusive rights for the last 10 years. Zetterholm further suggested that, instead of relying on O’Conner’s numbers, the county look at ABYSA’s books to get exact financials for the last ten years. He said O’Conner’s analysis presented a false dichotomy; in reality, sports teams provide the coaching, volunteers, and uniforms. Furthermore, fields can be rented for cost recovery.
Parents who were having trouble finding fields for their kids to play lacrosse, flag football, or soccer outside of the ABYSA organization complained that for a decade ABYSA has occupied the public John Lewis fields at Azalea Park, and now they’re monopolizing the fields at the Buncombe County Sports Complex. ABYSA controlled 17 fields, whereas other sports teams struggled constantly to find a single field, even at their children’s schools.
The county was not living up to its mission and vision slogans of transparency, equity, inclusivity, and access for all. A simple fix would be to draft a contract requiring ABYSA to rent out 20% of available playing time. ABYSA could, in turn, cost-share field maintenance with other users. Instead, ABYSA even gets to post recruitment signs on the fields.
Kristie Bivins, president of the Asheville Shield, was among those who had, since the last meeting, concluded ABYSA’s inability to share the fields was more the fault of the county. She said there was enough room for three non-ABYSA groups to rent fields at the Sports Complex a day. She asked why the county needed separate mowing equipment for each park? There were a lot of questions, and she thought the diverse interests should form a committee to collect concerns and seek solutions.
Michael Rottjakob, director of ABYSA, told how over 35 years of partnership, the county had incrementally transferred responsibilities to ABYSA, even “insisting” that ABYSA assume the obligation of maintaining the “competition-quality” grass. He said ABYSA had been a good steward, true to its commitments, and he provided statistics on enrollment as well as economic development. Representatives of the Asheville Shield organization were, he said, exaggerating their rejections. Rottjakob and ABYSA President Lisa May were not adverse to responsible field sharing.
Following public comment, Chair Brownie Newman said there would not be a vote that evening, as the presentation and comment were informational only. He then summarized: There were a finite number of sports fields in the county. ABYSA had done a great job as a steward of the fields, and O’Conner had listed persuasive advantages for contracting with ABYSA. However, the county was operating a “kind of monopolistic model.” Newman said when a government body authorizes exclusive use, it should also provide ongoing oversight.
Commissioner Al Whitesides agreed. Since the fields were tax-funded public resources, they should accommodate as many citizens as possible. He added 10 years was excessive for almost any contract. Since nobody knew how many playing fields the county had, Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara requested a count.