In what one board member characterized as “a crappy vote” to have to make, the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission on Monday voted 10-0 to remain independent from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority.
After the sometimes heated meeting, the commission’s board chair, Stephen Zubrod, said the two choices presented to the commission — remain independent but lose most of its funding from the TDA, or be absorbed into the TDA and retain the funding but lose its independence — were based on a “false premise.”
If the commission does remain independent, the status it has enjoyed since its formation in 2010, it could lose $140,000 in TDA funding.
The commission does have a current fund balance of about $210,000, and Interim Executive Director Chris Smith said the commission would have “about a year and a half of sustainability” under the independent model, unless it significantly upped its revenue generating activities.
Technically, the commission was voting on a “Sports Commission Event Operations Model” which maintains independence but with reduced funding, or a “Blended Sports Commission Structure” in which it cedes independence to the TDA but maintains full funding from that organization.
Several commission members expressed displeasure with the two options presented, with a general sentiment that the TDA is forcing a decision on an entity that was performing well independently.
“I would like to say this is a crappy vote,” Sports Commission member Jon Neumann said before the vote.
After the meeting, Neumann explained why he used that descriptive term. The independent model is “fiscally unsound” but allows independence, while the other is fiscally sound but involves absorption by the TDA.
“I feel like there should be another option that makes sense for everybody,” Neumann said.
While often operating behind the scenes, the Sports Commission has a big impact on Asheville. It has brought in marquee events such as the Southern Conference basketball tournament and the Billie Jean King tennis tournament, and it generates about a third of all overnight lodging stays in Buncombe County.
The TDA, which has an annual budget of nearly $40 million, provides the majority of the Sports Commission’s funding — $230,000 annually. The city of Asheville and Buncombe County pay $45,000 each.
‘A false premise’ that ‘turned out not to be true’
In an email to task force members in early September, TDA President and CEO Victoria “Vic” Isley suggested the TDA could not continue that level of funding if the commission remains independent because the money comes from the TDA’s marketing budget.
“The current level of funding of the Sports Commission by the BCTDA from its marketing budget, particularly under the new legislation, is likely problematic,” Isley said in the email.
Previously, by state law the TDA had to spend 75 percent of its revenue on marketing and 25 percent on the Tourism Product Development Fund. But last year the new legislation changed that to a two-thirds/one-third formula, while also creating a new fund, the Legacy Investment From Tourism, which also allows investment into capital projects.
In the email, Isley said if the Sports Commission “remains an entirely independent organization, the BCTDA cannot continue to provide for the salaries, benefits, travel and other administrative costs of the Sports Commission employees at the same level it has in the past.”
But Zubrod said the state legislation change that Isley noted in her email does not prevent the TDA from funding the commission from its marketing budget.
“We got insight from the state legislature that there was nothing — no rules in that new legislation that said they could not fund operations and people,” Zubrod said. “So that was a false premise on which this takeover was pitched, and it turned out not to be true.”
At the meeting, Isley backed off the assertion about the new legislation prohibiting spending from the TDA’s marketing budget. The funding of the Sports Commission was more about “equity,” Isley said, as the TDA does not fund more than 50 percent of any other organization’s budget but it does with the commission.
During the meeting, a Sports Commission member asked Isley if the TDA and its board have discretion on spending the marketing funds, which make up two-thirds of the TDA’s spending.
“Yes,” Isley said. “And to a ‘T,’ other than the Sports Commission, there’s been no funding more than 50 percent. And so to the point of equity, and across the community, (the question is) why are we doing this for one organization when we’re not doing it for any other one? And our board is very clear about that.”
‘There’s an elephant in the room’
Jan Davis, a former Asheville City Council member who’s been involved with the Sports Commission since its founding and sits on the board now, also expressed displeasure with the vote options.
“There’s an elephant in the room, and we’re to this thing about power right now,” Davis said, adding that the commission has done an excellent job of attracting events, which has translated into hotel stays.
“My problem is I’m not sure I could vote for either one of these,” Davis said. “In fact, we were doing a very good job. And again, I’m not even sure why we’re having this conversation.”
Commission member Jeff Joyce said he felt the same as Davis.
“I’m still confused about the legislation on the TDA, and why we can’t leave it the way it is,” Joyce said.
State Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe, did not attend Monday’s meeting but said she had heard from four Sports Commission members beforehand who all felt the vote was being thrust upon them because Isley made it sound like the new legislation made continued TDA funding problematic or impossible. Mayfield worked on the legislation with then-State Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Republican from Henderson County who sponsored the legislation. Edwards is now a U.S. Congressman.
Asked if any language in the new bill suggested funding an entity like the Sports Commission from marketing funds would be problematic, Mayfield said, “No.”
Mayfield said she found it odd that the new legislation was being presented as an impediment to funding an organization like the commission, so she reread the bill.
“And, in fact, I actually think the changes make it easier and clearer, and give the TDA even more authority to fund an organization like the Sports Commission than they had before,” Mayfield said. “I don’t think the Sports Commission was in anyone’s mind when we were working on this language, but I certainly didn’t read that to limit the ability of the TDA to continue to fund the Sports Commission in the way that they have.”
The ultimate fate of the Sports Commission will come down to a vote of its four founding members — the city of Asheville (Council Member Sage Turner), the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners (Commissioner Amanda Edwards), UNC Asheville (Athletic Director Janet Cone), and the TDA (Isley). Cone said they probably will vote on the commission’s future and the two options at a Sept. 28 meeting.
Zubrod said the independence of the commission is key because it’s an organization with strong leadership and an entrepreneurial spirit, and typically when smaller organizations are absorbed into larger ones that spirit is lost.
Commission member Donna Bailey was skeptical about that.
“I’m listening to two things — leadership and independence — and I’m curious as to why you think you would lose your leadership under the TDA. I’m missing that whole point, and I have ever since the beginning,” Bailey said. “Has somebody told you you won’t be leaders — as you won’t be able to make your own decisions? You won’t be able to bring in sports events? That’s where I’m missing, especially when you look at the financial picture. What am I missing here?”
Zubrod cited a dispute last year about bringing in another basketball tournament that would have conflicted with the Southern Conference tournament. He also noted that the commission has two employees, interim Executive Director Chris Smith and Vice President of Operations Madison Davis.
“I do think the reason why organizations succeed so much when it’s two or three people is they have clarity on what they’re trying to do and they focus and make a decision,” Zubrod said. “And when you make it a bigger, broader corporate entity, that gets muddled.”
Bailey did not vote either way on the motion, opting to “pass.”
Isley is not on the Sports Commission’s board and did not have a vote. The other three representatives of the founding bodies — Turner, Edwards and Cone — all abstained from voting Monday because they said they did not want to exert influence on the rest of the board.
Cone in particular stressed that while the commission’s vote is not binding, she will take it to heart on Sept. 28. But she also noted that the discussion has been ongoing for over a year, the commission’s outdated bylaws must be updated, and the TDA’s board needs to know if it’s going to have to update its budget.
“This is a proposal that we can’t just keep going on like this,” Cone said. “Somewhere here at the end of October, beginning of November, we need to decide what we’re going to do.”
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