Lisa Baldwin, who serves as whipping girl on the Buncombe County Board of Education, was speaking as clearly as any informed member of the public could about a one-page, 178-word staff report in the Buncombe County Commissioners’ agenda. As background, it stated, “The Enka Youth Sports Organization has commitments for the donation of acres of land in Enka (at the old Enka plant); an application for The Tourism Development Fund for $2.4 million; and donation requests and pledges for $1 million to build a 7 field complex [sic., sic., sic.].”
As the meeting proceeded, it became evident that the county intended to sell real estate referred to only as the “spec building.” Acquired by taxpayers for a public purpose, it was now going to be sold for $1.3 million, with proceeds to be donated to the EYSO, a newly-organizing group still working on getting its 501(c)(3).
Behind the plan was Fletcher Partners, a group of five investors of whom the commissioners spoke glowingly. Fletcher Partners wanted to sell 90 acres of land, on the former site of the BASF plant in Enka, to create a sports complex featuring seven baseball/softball fields. Answering concerns from Baldwin and Jerry Rice about why Fletcher Partners was unloading such vast acreage on the county, presenter Martin Lewis simply said the principals felt the need for baseball and/or softball was important to the community. Lewis explained he and his partners hoped the venture would be self-sustaining for the EYSO with revenues generated by tournaments on weekends. During the week, the fields would be open to locals. Details for user fees had not been worked out, but it was hoped weekday users would be able to play for free as long as they left the fields as they found them.
County staff proposed donating the $1.3 million with some contingencies, not the least of which was the sale of the building to a private investor; County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene indicated it may take three years to close on the deal. In addition, Fletcher Partners would have to follow through with their donation of the property to the EYSO, and the EYSO would have to raise $1 million in private funding on top of receiving a $2.4 million grant from an application yet to be processed by the Tourism Development Authority.
On top of that, the commissioners added three stipulations: (1) that the EYSO complete the greenways envisioned for the property in the county’s master plan, (2) that the commissioners be provided documentation evidencing due diligence in demonstrating the site poses no threats to health and safety as judged by all federal, state, and local standards; and (3) that the EYSO would have to obtain approval from the commissioners should their mission ever stray from providing recreational sports opportunities.
Speaking in awe of his reputation, Commissioner Holly Jones did not try to second-guess Lewis. “Like I said, I think it’s a sound plan. Obviously, your credibility is stellar, and your company’s investment in this part of our county – I’m very thankful for that. That said, we’re getting ready to have a nonprofit – The ink’s not dry, there’s no financials to look at, so we’re kind of going out here in faith. It’s a big-dollar amount, but I believe in you! [Although this is] outside our norm, I think it’s OK. I think that you have rules and guidelines for a reason, but I think you’re not locked into them when you have an opportunity to do the good of the public and to deliver something in the community.”
Though not opposed to the idea of donating public funds to a private entity that, in turn promised to afford public recreational space; Commissioner Brownie Newman had reservations. He attempted to probe where he was not going to get answers by explaining, “I just want us going into this real clear-eyed. . . . There have been a lot of ideas floated in the community from time to time about different recreational and cultural amenities, and the idea of them being self-sustaining. A lot of them turn out to just not come together, and I want us to be really realistic about the business plan for the project. . . . Thinking ahead, is there going to be a day when someone comes back to this body, years from now, and says, ‘Well, it just didn’t work. We built all this stuff, and it needs x-amount of public funding to keep it going’?”
Chair David Gantt shared, “I think this is one of the best incentives we can make. We have a moral obligation to take care of kids. I don’t think the kids care who owns it. I think kids want a place to play. . . . This is what it’s all about. This is what government can do well.”
Commissioner Ellen Frost was enthralled. “I really want to thank you. I think this is a homerun for Buncombe County. But I really, really want to thank you because I think we’re kind of seeing a sea change here with so much support from all seven of us. In the past, some have been bogged down by ‘out of budget cycle,’ ‘not-for-profits,’ ‘administrative costs,’ so I really heartily applaud you coming before us for this wonderful project where maybe as we go forward in the future we’ll be accepting of other projects.” Just before the unanimous vote, she expressed her wish that her peers would, “Keep the spirit going of community funding.”