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Soccer advocates say new fields would benefit kids, draw tourism

A goalkeeper stops a shot during a Henderson County Youth Soccer game Saturday, April 16. A goalkeeper stops a shot during a Henderson County Youth Soccer game Saturday, April 16.

Stacie Worrell Marlowe has dashed across all the soccer fields in Hendersonville, starting with youth soccer at age 8 and continuing through her senior year as a fullback on the varsity team at Faith Christian School.

“My old soccer field is now the AAC (Athletics & Activity Center) field,” she said. “That’s where I went to high school. So I’ve been all over it and now my little one is all over it.”
Marlowe, 34, is now a mom to “one of the teeny ones” racing around the Jackson Park soccer fields — her 6-year-old son — and serves as president of the Henderson County Youth Soccer Association.
Like just about everyone involved in youth soccer at any level in Henderson County, Marlowe strongly favors a major investment in new playing fields.
“Absolutely,” she said. “We’ve needed it for years. It is an accessible sport. All that you need are some shin guards and a ball. In football, you need pads and gear and it’s a lot more of a cost involvement. Same thing with baseball, which is a thriving sport in Henderson County as it should be. But when it comes to sheer numbers and the ability for kids to have access, the thing that really is standing in the way of growth is fields for Henderson County.”
That could change if Henderson County commissioners get behind a new proposal from its Parks & Recreation Department and county engineer. In response to commissioners’ request to study the cost of a new soccer complex, the staffers will present a concept this week during the board’s regular mid-month meeting. At $14 million over 10 years, the complex, though not cheap, is likely to enjoy widespread support among the young families who flock to Jackson Park’s often soggy fields on Saturday mornings.
The proposal commissioners will see this week envisions four tournament-quality fields designed to accommodate multiple sports including lacrosse, cricket and Ultimate Frisbee. The project would include:
• In year 1, land acquisition, surveying, permitting and design at a cost of $2 million.
• In phase 2 over three years, site development, construction of two full-size fields covering 5 acres plus restrooms and a concession stand at a cost of $5.9 million.
• In phase 3 through year 10, construction of two more full-size fields at a cost of $5.8 million.

‘Whatever we do it’s still gonna flood’

The most vocal proponent of new soccer fields, Commissioner Rebecca McCall asked county engineers what could be done to improve the drainage and playability of the existing five 90x180-foot soccer fields in Jackson Park. Not much, came the answer.
“Jackson Park isn’t going to cut it for soccer,” McCall said at the board’s April 4 meeting. “It’s a substitute and if we support our children moving forward with soccer we need to provide better facilities for that. Whatever we do at Jackson Park it’s still gonna flood.”
The Parks & Recreation Department, Henderson County Youth Soccer Association and the Asheville Buncombe Youth Soccer Association (ABYSA) say more than 1,000 kids are involved in soccer in Henderson County, from age 3 through 18.
A member of the ABYSA Henderson County board and a recreation soccer coach, Eric Clonch says the large soccer community supports new fields.
“The AAC turf field in Hendersonville is a huge asset for my kids, and for so many other families in the county,” he said in an email. “In talking with a wide variety of Henderson County soccer families in recent years, the one common theme in those conversations is the firmly held belief that the time is right for a larger investment into quality field space to serve the more than 1,000 youth soccer participants in the County. The Henderson County soccer community is excited to see county leaders at all levels recognize the need as well.”
‘The trajectory is more participation’
ABYSA, the organization managing youth soccer in Buncombe and Henderson counties, is surprisingly large. The fulltime executive director, Mike Rottjakob, manages 12-15 fulltime employees and 100 parttime employees and receives more 30,000 hours a year worth of volunteer help. The Asheville-based organization formed ABYSA Henderson County in 2015 to manage programming for recreational soccer — which serves tots to teens — and then formed HFC Henderson County (Highland Football Club) in 2021 to manage the more competitive league, which starts at age 11.
“We would be interested in discussing ways that we can partner both in serving Henderson County soccer players as well as how to how to turn a new complex not only into something that serves players and families but also generates economic development,” Rottjakob said. “Sports tourism and travel soccer is very popular in the United States and the ability to expand existing tournaments that are in Western North Carolina and host events fills hotel rooms and generates revenue for other businesses that serve tourism. It’s been shown to be a good investment.”
“There's definitely a need there,” 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 the demand is not going to decrease.

'The trajectory is more participation'


Marlowe, the Hendersonville native who leads the local youth soccer association, is quick to praise the county Parks & Recreation staff for making the best of the often poor conditions at Jackson Park, adding “there’s only so much they can do to keep up with it.”
“The Jackson Park fields have the same problems that they did 20 years ago when I was playing on them,” she said. “They were gonna flood anytime it was going to rain or even think about raining. And when it washes out, even after the rain is gone, there are some divots that are left in there that can be dangerous for play.”
She sees a new soccer park with four regulation artificial turf fields as a worthy investment that will benefit young families and attract tourism dollars.
“I think that it not only would provide resources to families for extended play, but I think it’s also an economic driver,” she said. “I think that in the strategic plan one of the things that became apparent is that Henderson County residents appreciate the green spaces, and right now we really lack rectangular fields that are accessible for everyone. There’s a lot of things that can be played on rectangular spaces. It can also be an economic driver to be able to put in different types of tournament play and bring that into Henderson County. … I think that it will pay dividends for years to come and that it’s something that is in dire need of investment and attention.”