ASHEVILLE - Two major projects in the works in Buncombe County got significant boosts Aug. 31 from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, including a $6 million allocation for a Woodfin park and kayaking "wave."
The board and TDA staff also briefly addressed its recent allocation of $1.3 million to become a sponsor of the U.S. Open tennis tournament in Queens, New York.
The board unanimously approved $5.89 million in additional Tourism Product Development Fund grant funding for the town of Woodfin's Greenway/Blueway and Whitewater Wave project. The $29.9 million project comprises 5 miles of greenway along the French Broad River and Beaverdam Creek, with access at Silver-Line Park and the expanded Riverside Park, as well as the in-stream Whitewater Wave.
The Wave water feature in the French Broad River should have strong appeal to "experienced and expert" kayakers, and it could become home to high-level competition events, consultant Marc Hunt told the TDA. Hunt, an experienced paddler, is a former Asheville City Council member.
The TDA in 2017 had allocated $2.25 million to the Woodfin project.
On Aug. 31, the TDA also unanimously approved an additional $750,000 for the Enka Recreation Destination, a complex of soccer and baseball fields and associated facilities, as well as the Enka Heritage Trail. The TDA had awarded the project $6 million in 2018.
Chris Cavanaugh, the contracted administrator for the Tourism Product Development Fund program, told the board the additional $750,000 was needed because of inflation and cost overruns, as well as for additional player and guest amenities, including additional lighting, new restrooms and a new waterline. The additional funding will allow the project to be completed, he said.
TDA board member Brenda Durden, who also serves on the TPDF committee, acknowledged the Enka project addendum was "a big ask," but she also said the work is "shovel ready" and this extra funding will get it completed.
Woodfin projects could draw 1,000 people daily
Cavanaugh said the Woodfin park/wave project should draw about 1,000 visitors a day. The wave feature will be "unticketed," meaning it will be open to the public at no fee. But it likely will also host competitive events that would require registration and likely fees.
The $3.2-million, 5-acre Silver-Line Park, the first major milestone in Woodfin's plans, had a grand opening April 21. Construction of the wave facility will likely start in 2023 and continue into 2024.
Woodfin Town Manager Shannon Tuch said the whole park, including the greenway and wave elements, likely will not be complete until the end of 2024.
"We're over the top thrilled," Tuch said after the meeting. "We're very grateful to the TDA for the support, and we're excited to work with our partners. We see this as a regional asset that will benefit residents and visitors alike."
The project also will help the town improve the river quality and river banks, which "kind of helps the town's historic relationship with the river," Tuch added.
Cavanaugh noted the whitewater wave feature made up $1.6 million of the new request, the Riverside Park amenities roughly $4.2 million.
The wave feature, which requires special state and federal permits, involves placing granite rocks secured with concrete into the river, creating a "hydraulic" effect over a ledge, which paddlers find challenging. Hunt said he just returned from Prague in the Czech Republic, where testing of Woodfin's concept showed the town's wave feature could draw top paddlers from around the world, and possibly attract a world championship in freestyle kayaking, Hunt said.
Unlike the whitewater feature in Charlotte, which is freestanding and not connected to a river, and is used for national competitions, the Woodfin wave will not have any moving mechanical parts to change the experience or height of the wave, Hunt said. The simpler "ledge" concept in Woodfin has the benefit of requiring very little maintenance, Hunt said.
Impact on other projects?
The TDA Board had some discussion over how much money will be left in the TPDF fund after the two disbursals approved Aug. 31. Cavanaugh said the awards should not impact the 2022 cycle of applications.
The fund will have $8.9 million remaining for the 2022 cycle of awards even after the Enka and Woodfin awards, Cavanaugh said. This year, 15 applications have made it through the first round of the TPDF application process, but some project proposals will likely have build dates several years into the future.
TDA President and CEO Vic Isley said they don't know yet what projects will "come over the portal" and "what the viability is." Aug. 31 was also the deadline for round two of the application process for those projects.
The TPDF funding, like the TDA's overall funding, comes from the occupancy tax, an added fee on the cost of a hotel room, vacation rental, or bed and breakfast stay. The North Carolina General Assembly this year changed the TDA's financial disbursement policy, now requiring the Authority to spend two-thirds of its revenues on advertising and one-third on the Tourism Product Development Fund.
It previously was a 75%-25% split.
Isley noted earlier in the meeting that hotel occupancy had softened this summer in Buncombe County, with tourists indicating they're tightening spending due to inflation and higher gas prices.
U.S. Open spending 'imperative'
Later in the meeting, when the subject of the recent $1.3 million sponsorship of the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament came up, hotelier and TDA board member H.P. Patel said such spending is crucial now. Patel said his hotels have also been "significantly down" in July and August, as far as occupancy and "revpar," or "revenue per available room."
“It’s imperative, this advertising,” Patel said. “I think it’s great, what you guys are doing, and the U.S. Open appeals to that.”
Marla Tambellini, senior vice president of marketing with the TDA, told the board the the one-year partnership with the U.S. Open will provide major exposure for Asheville. She also noted that Asheville is only the second city in history to host three Billie Jean King tennis tournaments, with the most recent in April.
Tambellini noted the $1.3 million expenditure is "really just over 16% of the $8 million in economic impact derived from the Billie Jean King match in April."
The U.S. Open will include over 100 hours of television coverage, with about 700,000 fans coming through the gates. Also, superstar Serena Williams has announced the Open will likely be her last event before retirement, and that's bound to boost viewership, Tambellini said.
"The partnership with the U.S. Open has an opportunity for us to really shine a spotlight on Asheville through extensive on-court signage in Arthur Ashe stadium, video boards throughout the USTA village and national tennis center complex and then marketing messages on the U.S. Open platform and U.S. Open radio," Tambellini said.
TDA Board chair Kathleen Mosher, who is also vice president of communications for the Biltmore Estate, said after the meeting that the $1.3 million contract "is line with other national media buys," the TDA has made, as Tambellini pointed out.
Asked if the TDA Board specifically approved the U.S. Open buy, Mosher said via email, "Total budget and high level marketing strategy is presented to the board, but we only vote on the budget in total. The board does not vote on individual marketing activities, however, the team shares regular updates with us for awareness."
Some in the community have been critical of TDA advertising spending in general, but no one spoke about the U.S. Open expenditure at the meeting.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: TDA invests $5.9M more in Woodfin 'Wave' plan, $750k in Enka Rec Park