Football advocates say new fields would benefit children and attract tourism
Stacie Worrell Marlowe has stormed every football field in Hendersonville, starting with youth football at age 8 through her senior year as a full-back on the varsity team at Faith Christian School.
“My old soccer field is now the AAC (Athletics & Activity Center) field,” she said. “I went to high school there. So I got through it all and now my little one is over it all.”
Marlowe, 34, is now a mother to “one of the little ones” who runs around the Jackson Park soccer fields – her 6-year-old son – and serves as president of the Henderson County Youth Soccer Association.
Like almost everyone involved in youth football at all levels in Henderson County, Marlowe strongly advocates greater investment in new pitches.
“Absolutely,” she said. “We’ve needed it for years. It’s an accessible sport. All you need is a pair of shin guards and a ball. In football you need pads and equipment and it’s a lot more of a cost sharing. Ditto for baseball, which is a thriving sport in Henderson County, as it should be. But when it comes to sheer numbers and the ability for children to have access, what really stands in the way of growth for Henderson County is the fields.”
That could change if Henderson County commissioners get behind a new proposal from the Parks & Recreation Department and County Engineer. In response to the commissioners’ request to study the cost of a new football complex, staff will present a concept this week during the regular mid-month board meeting. At $14 million over 10 years, the complex, while not cheap, is likely to enjoy widespread support among the young families who flock to Jackson Park’s often wet fields on Saturday mornings.
Proposal commissioners will see this week that four tournament-quality pitches designed for multiple sports, including lacrosse, cricket and ultimate frisbee, are being slated. The project would include:
• Year 1 land acquisition, survey, permitting and planning at a cost of $2 million.
• In Phase 2 over three years of site development, construction of two large fields covering 5 acres plus toilets and concession stand at a cost of $5.9 million.
• Construction of two additional full size fields in Phase 3 through Year 10 at a cost of $5.8 million.
“Whatever we do, it’s still going to be flooded”
The most vocal advocate of new soccer fields, Commissioner Rebecca McCall, asked county engineers what could be done to improve the drainage and playability of Jackson Park’s existing five 90-by-180-foot soccer fields. Not much, came the reply.
“Jackson Park is not going to do it for football,” McCall said at the April 4 board meeting. “It’s a substitute and if we’re going to help our kids get ahead with football we need to provide better facilities for that. Whatever we do in Jackson Park, it’s still going to be flooded.”
The Parks & Recreation Department, the Henderson County Youth Soccer Association and the Asheville Buncombe Youth Soccer Association (ABYSA) say more than 1,000 children ages 3 to 18 play soccer in Henderson County.
Eric Clonch, ABYSA Henderson County board member and recreational football coach, says the large football community supports new fields.
“The AAC turf field in Hendersonville is a huge asset to my children and to so many other families in the county,” he said in an email. “Having spoken to a variety of Henderson County football families over the past several years, the only common theme in those conversations has been a strong belief that the time is right for major investment in quality playing fields for the more than 1,000 youth football players in the county. The Henderson County football community is pleased that district leaders at all levels are recognizing the need.”
“The way leads to more participation”
ABYSA, the organization that manages youth football in Buncombe and Henderson counties, is surprisingly large. Full-time CEO Mike Rottjakob manages 12-15 full-time employees and 100 part-time employees and receives more than 30,000 volunteer hours annually. The Asheville-based organization formed ABYSA Henderson County in 2015 to manage the recreational football program – which serves from toddlers to teenagers – then formed HFC Henderson County (Highland Football Club) in 2021 to manage the more competitive league , which begins at age 11.
“We would be interested in discussing ways we can both work together to serve Henderson County’s football players and how we can transform a new complex into something that not only serves players and families, but also promotes economic development.” ‘ said Rottjakob. “Sports tourism and touring soccer are hugely popular in the United States, and the ability to expand existing tournaments and host events in western North Carolina fills hotel rooms and generates revenue for other tourism-related businesses. It has proven to be a good investment.”
“There’s definitely a need,” he said. “And you know, I think families right now are understanding the importance of activities for their children for the health benefits and the social benefits of participating in sports. And demand will not fall.
“The way leads to more participation”
Marlowe, who is from Hendersonville and runs the local youth football association, is quick to praise County Parks & Recreation staff for making the best of Jackson Park’s often poor conditions, adding: “There’s not much they can do to help.” to keep up with that.”
“The Jackson Park fields have the same problems as when I played them 20 years ago,” she said. “They would flood every time it would rain, or even think about raining. And if it washes out, even after the rain has stopped, there will be some divots there that can be dangerous for the game.”
She sees a new football park with four regulation artificial turf pitches as a worthwhile investment that will benefit young families and attract tourism monies.
“I think not only would it provide families with resources for extended play, but I think it’s also an economic engine,” she said. “I think one of the things that became clear in the strategic plan is that Henderson County residents value green space, and right now we’re missing really rectangular fields that are accessible to all. There are many things that can be played on rectangular fields. There can also be an economic impetus to introduce different types of tournament play and bring it to Henderson County. … I think it will pay off in the years to come and it needs serious investment and attention.”