Asheville – Asheville – The City of Asheville’s Capital Projects Director Jade Dundas updated the city council on the action staff had taken toward completing the Memorial Stadium project. Memorial Stadium is the name for the neglected stadium and park behind McCormick Field. On March 22, council authorized proceeding with revised designs as presented by staff, with the addition of a six-lane, 400-meter, rubber-surfaced, competitive track; and identifying a funding source. Other budget drivers include replacing the restrooms, expanding the equipment storage area, paving a plaza and walking trails, and improving the playground.
The estimated cost was $4.4 million, and staff recommended using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds ($2,500,000), general obligation bonds already floated for parks and recreation ($944,000), contingency funds from this year’s capital improvement plan ($750,000), and unspent funds originally intended for fleet replacements ($148,345).
Mayor Esther Manheimer asked what else foot-dragging-continues-over-park contingency funds might support. She said she frequently hears complaints, after a vote, that funds could have gone toward something better. Councilwoman Sage Turner didn’t think the city should be budgeting contingencies, and she didn’t think this project should receive ARPA funding, either. While she emphasized her support for the project, she didn’t see what these recreational amenities had to do with COVID relief. Councilwoman Gwen Wisler reminded her peers they had already confirmed that improvements to Memorial Stadium would be a legitimate use of COVID relief fundsSome members of Asheville City Council expressed trepidation over staff-recommended sources of funding for completing revised plans for the park at Memorial Stadium.
City Manager Debra Campbell said if the city didn’t want to use ARPA funds for this project, it would have to yank the funding out from other projects. So, Turner asked if the project might be funded in phases and was told it would be. At that, Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore advised against a protracted timeline, in light of escalating costs. Perhaps rhetorically, Manheimer asked if the city couldn’t float new bonds, but Finance and Management Services Director Tony McDowell replied the city’s financial advisors were saying Asheville “didn’t have the capacity” to take on more debt for the next five years.
Campbell reminded Turner that the Memorial Stadium project had not been moved ahead of other projects. It had been in the capital improvement plan, but recently, at the request of the community, had undergone design changes. “So, now we are just continuing on the path that we were on, with a broader scope of the project.” Staff’s decisions for funding the extra expenses were made to minimally impact other projects. Councilwoman Kim Roney said that may be so for municipal projects, but financing this would crowd out a lot of non-government applications for ARPA funding.
Wisler said the discussion was appropriate for another budget session, in which the city would be able to add or subtract items from the city’s capital improvement plan. It was election season, so Manheimer, who has repeatedly demonstrated her short fuse for suffering fools, asked if members of council would like to put themselves in the “painful” position of pulling projects off the list. Wisler was not amenable, but Turner was. Wisler said staff had already prioritized the projects, and she didn’t want to second-guess them.
Councilwoman Antanette Mosley put the kibosh on the debate. “Well, I do have a question. I’m wondering, since there seems to be some hesitance with using ARPA funds, what proposed ideas do councilmembers find to be more important than the health and welfare of a community that’s waited 30+ years for this opportunity. Since we have an opportunity that would not delve into the taxpayers’ pockets, which applications do we feel are more worthy than the request of a historic black neighborhood?” Kilgore added that this project should have been finished years ago.
To that, Turner said the fact that the project was so overdue indicated it was not pandemic-induced. Mosley disagreed. She said when she was out running during the pandemic, somebody expressed to her the need for a track on their side of town.
Manheimer said a lot of cities are using ARPA funds for deferred infrastructure repair, refurbishment, and expansion. Somebody had just sent members of council an article spotlighting how Brevard is using ARPA funds to “invest in infrastructure:” building a bridge, mitigating stormwater, and improving the water system. Asheville’s wish list for ARPA funding was broader, because the city is a regional hub for services, like housing the homeless during the pandemic. Manheimer said she was certain Congress, when they appropriated ARPA funding, was fully aware that the nation’s infrastructure was crumbling and that local governments didn’t have the wherewithal to make the needed repairs.
“I’m concerned a lot about where we are stuck financially,” she said. She then took the opportunity to publicly complain about how the League of Municipalities felt the state’s method of redistributing sales tax revenues was shortchanging municipalities. She said exploding sales tax revenues have enabled Buncombe County to add 71 new positions, while the city is struggling just to provide a cost of living adjustments to those already on the payroll.
Turner asked if Tourism Product Development Funds (TPDF) might be solicited for this and other projects. Manheimer explained TPDF funds for capital investments can only support projects strategically designed to put heads on beds. So, applying for those funds would require a reframing of the park concept in a manner that would contradict the city’s messaging about it providing a historically black neighborhood with a community-building asset. She added, that the city already had, “a list a mile long that the TDA can fund for projects.”