Are we really ready to say, “Yer out!” to the Asheville Tourists?
I highly doubt it, but the near-total silence regarding our local minor league team’s predicament, at least from the city of Asheville and Buncombe County, suggests at the very least a potentially deadly apathy. That could indeed result in a vacant McCormick Field.
If you’re not up to speed, take a few minutes to read Asheville Watchdog’s story about the issues surrounding the Asheville Tourists, McCormick Field, and the need for a $30 million overhaul the stadium facilities. In a nutshell, Major League Baseball, which oversees minor league teams, is requiring significant upgrades to minor league facilities by April 1, 2023.
Tourists owner/president Brian DeWine knows there’s no way the physical work can be done by that date, even if they issued jackhammers to Ted E. Tourist and Mr. Moon and required 80-hour work weeks. Don’t get me wrong — Ted E. Tourist is a hoss, but even he can’t work that fast.
DeWine just wants the city, which owns the stadium, and Buncombe County, where a lot of fans come from, and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, which funds a lot of brick and mortar projects locally that benefit tourists and locals, to commit to and formally approve a financial package the Tourists can show MLB. But so far, the subject hasn’t made it to a city or county agenda.
Election a factor?
My theory is that no local politician in their right mind wanted to touch this issue during the recently concluded election season. Really, would you want to be the county commissioner or city council member fighting for $30 million for the local ballpark while no one under age 50 can afford a house around here, and homeless tent villages keep popping up like mushrooms after a heavy rain?
Hey, it’s not like baseball is some elitist activity — just about everybody in this area takes their kids to the ballpark or swills a few cheap beers on Thirsty Thursdays — but it might not look great to give an impassioned speech for a gigantic subsidy for the Tourists when homeless people are relieving themselves in the doorways of downtown businesses.
In short, it would take some real political courage to fight the athletic fight.
I will say Buncombe County Board of Commissioners member Amanda Edwards did speak to me on the record in support of the renovations before election day. She’s clearly in her right mind but had a big lead over her opponent.
But otherwise, it’s been political crickets.
Maybe folks just take professional baseball here for granted.
Built in 1924 and last renovated in 1992, McCormick Field has been home to Asheville’s professional baseball club for most of the last century. The upgrade in 1992 was significant, but that was 30 years ago, and a lot has changed in the interim, including the advent of female umpires and coaches.
Among improvements MLB is requiring are separate changing rooms for female umps. McCormick field currently divides the one changing room with a curtain.
Other needs include an overhaul of the front gate, which is woefully tight, an upgrade of the visitors’ locker room, a better outfield fence, a new press box and more.
Sure, DeWine also wants some nice, non-MLB-mandated niceties like a luxury box, picnic area, an outfield bar, a pedestrian concourse around the left-field wall and a new video display. These are features DeWine says are common at a lot of ballparks, and ones fans have come to expect.
But in all, DeWine says, MLB requirements comprise about 75 percent of the $30 million price tag. The remainder would fund the extras, which he contends would make the park at least somewhat comparable to minor league teams in the Southeast with either new or significantly upgraded ballparks.
The stadium’s superstructure is fine, the seats are relatively new and the Tourists take good care of the field. But take a tour of the innards of McCormick Field, and you won’t come away impressed.
It ain’t plush.
Who should pay?
The question here — and it’s always the eternal question in every city with any kind of professional sports team — is who should pay for these upgrades, and should taxpayers be the major funders?
The Asheville Tourists Baseball Club is owned by the family of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and DeWine Seeds Silver Dollar Baseball. Our story said: “Gov. DeWine personally owns 32 percent of the team, according to records, but has no management role in the team. Brian DeWine, his son and an Asheville resident since 2010, is the president of the team, and he calls the Tourists ‘a local, family-owned business.’”
Clearly, it would take a loan to get this project done, so the city likely would have to issue bonds to pay for it. DeWine projects that if they can get a $15 million commitment from the TDA, and $2.5 million from the state, that would leave Buncombe and Asheville taxpayers splitting the loan balance, with payments coming out to $900,000, a year for 15 years.
So maybe the city pays $500,000, the county $400,000, annually. Or $600,000-$300,000. That can be worked out.
Brian DeWine said the Tourists will contribute $300,000 annually to the repayment, which he maintains is comparable to what other minor league clubs have committed to renovation projects.
On the one hand, the DeWine family is reportedly worth millions of dollars, and critics say they should cough up more than $300,000 annually, especially as Asheville leases the stadium to the Tourists for $1 a year.
On the other hand, McCormick Field lacks amenities that allow teams to make more money on concessions. DeWine also told Asheville Watchdog the economic benefit his team brings to the community is over $9.8 million a year.
Time to put a crowbar in your wallet
Here’s my take on this: Everybody involved needs to put crowbars in their wallets and pony up.
Can the DeWines and their company afford a little more? Sure.
Can local governments and the TDA afford this? Yes.
And they should get in gear.
As Edwards told me when I was still working at the Citizen Times for an article on this issue, “For me it’s about enhancing the quality of life, and looking at what are ways that we can enhance the quality of life. There are a lot of people who love the Tourists and taking their young families to the baseball games. That’s a quality of life (issue).”
That hits the nail on the head. To me, it’s like parks or pickleball courts or greenways or other public amenities that benefit local residents — you’ve got to pay to play. And people expect recreation for their tax dollars.
I know my family has fond memories of taking our two boys to ball games at McCormick Field, watching Ted E. Tourist race kids around the bases (how does he manage to lose every race? That needs an investigation!), oohing and ahhing at fireworks shows and meeting a few Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders during a special promotion.
Seriously, you cannot put a dollar figure on the memory of your 12-year-old son blushing like a tomato when he’s squeezed between two Cowboys’ cheerleaders.
But I digress.
Back to my hot take: Get it in gear, Asheville, Buncombe and the TDA. Put the issue on your agendas, get a real plan together and keep baseball in Asheville.
It’s one of the few venues left in town that truly caters mostly to locals.
You don’t want to be the politicians who killed baseball in Asheville.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.