Most, if not all of us, have either played or watched a game at JBL in the last fifteen years. What did the space look like before the fields were constructed?
Mike Rottjakob: The first time that I went out to look at the property on Azalea Road was in 1990 and a guy by the name of Lloyd Sigman took me out there. He had this idea that it would be a great place to build soccer fields. At the time our various programs were scattered all over the county, but when he drove me out there, I took one look and was like, "Yeah, it looks like we could build a lot of soccer fields here.” I didn't know anything about that the price on the property, which was really high for what it was - farmland in a floodplain that had, in years past, actually been a recreational lake and that's where the dam came from. They had dammed it up but for use it needed to be dredged and the city couldn't afford to do it. So, they let it drain and it was returned back to its original owner because the donation to the city required it to be used as a recreational facility. Again, the price tag on it was ridiculously high and out of our range and then, sometime in the very early 2000s, Irby Brinson, who was the director of Parks and Recreation with the City of Asheville, announced that the city had bought the property.
Now that the property was secured, how did the complex come to be?
MR: With the city owning the property outright, Lloyd Sigman, the gentleman who took me out there to look at the property many years before, created the Western North Carolina Soccer Foundation and pledged to work together with the City of Asheville to develop that property into a soccer complex. Soon contracts to do collaborative fundraising between the city, the Western North Carolina Soccer Foundation, and Asheville Buncombe Youth Soccer Association, were created to fundraise for the property and build the soccer fields for the benefit of the soccer community. Some of that came through the Tourism Product Development Fund from the Tourism Development Authority. JBL was actually the very first project funded after that legislation to allow for an additional room tax in order to fund grants for tourism related infrastructure projects. After that very first grant was allocated, the funding piece came together pretty quickly.
I also want to say how proud I am that the John B. Lewis Soccer Complex has historically been the best money that the Tourism Product Development Fund has ever spent in terms of documented hotel room night use. In our most productive years, which were right before COVID-19, we were achieving through the events that we own as well as events we host for other people close to 15,000 hotel room nights a year. That’s incredible and a testament to a community working together on a goal and everyone coming out ahead.
The funding for the complex was also supplemented by the efforts of Ben and Becky Lewis in honor of their late son, John B. Lewis. Guy, what did it mean to John to be from Asheville?
Guy Campbell: John was an unbelievable athlete and had participated since a young age in the highest levels of competitions in a variety of sports. We both played for HFC and even then North Carolina was a “soccer state.” But there was a certain way teams from Charlotte or Raleigh would turn their nose up at us when they would come this way to play. Our facilities weren’t quite cow pastures, but they certainly weren’t the bright green fields that were used back east. But we were good and regularly beat those teams! I know John was proud of that. Proud that he was a product of Asheville - that he represented the city and his community.
What role did sports, specifically soccer, play in John’s life?
GC: John was the most competitive person I have ever met. He hated losing in anything. He was a multi-sport athlete, had two separate varsity letters as a sophomore, and was always looking for that next level of competition. At that time, travel soccer was much more organized across the state than other sports and provided the opportunity to play against elite competition. That was John – he used sports to challenge himself and to learn life lessons.
Mike, was the original idea always four side-by-side turf fields?
MR: Actually, no. It was originally planned to be a natural grass facility. Under that plan we would have used it as a game-only facility. However, Buncombe County Sports Park, which Buncombe County built and opened around the year 2000, wasn't meeting the day-to-day needs of the soccer community, because in order for it to be a high quality game facility you just can't play on it all the time. To accommodate that reality, we had to look at an artificial field.
Why was that specific type of turf chosen for the fields at JBL?
MR: I was at a Labor Day soccer tournament in Greensboro, and this was probably around 2001, 2002, and there was torrential rainfall and my team's games got moved to a brand new facility, which was three artificial turf fields that were built in the parking lot of an abandoned mall in Greensboro. It was amazing. We went out there and expected to play at a big soccer complex natural grass soccer complex and it was closed - but they were able to get a lot of games in because of these turf fields. As soon as I got back to Asheville, this was before I had a cell phone, I called Lloyd Sigman and I said, “You’ve got to go see this, because this is the answer to what we really need.” It'd be great to have four more beautiful Bermuda grass fields, but this would give us something that we could use all the time. I also learned during that tournament that the Greensboro Youth Soccer Association was doing almost all of their competitive program practices there and so they were virtually insulated from weather-related cancellations across the board.
We brought that information back to Lloyd and then contacted Irby at the city with the idea. In less than a month, a trip was scheduled to go visit the field turf manufacturing facility in Dalton, Georgia, and to go visit a couple of fields that they had installed in Atlanta. We made a day of it. And in the end, the project was switched from a natural grass facility to artificial grass facility. Not many people realize that at the time when JBL was completed it was the largest, in terms of the number of square feet of turf, artificial turf facility in the eastern half of the United States. Now there's turf everywhere. We are proud that many soccer clubs came to play at the John B. Lewis Soccer Complex and, based on that experience, went home and began their plans for adding their own artificial turf fields.
How long did it take for the complex to feel like it was being used to its full potential?
MR: Almost immediately. The park opened in 2005, and we, to the city's surprise, did exactly what we told them we would do with this new facility - our programming would grow and it would be fully programmed. Around 2008, we convinced the city to install field lighting out there, or to actually to allow us to install field lighting out there, by offering to pay for the entire project. Once we installed the lights that really propelled even further growth of our program, especially the HFC side of things and that was really the same time when the ABASA, the adult league, took off.
As well-known as Asheville’s youth programming is, we may be even better known for our adult leagues. How have they used JBL to function and grow?
MR: The NSA adult league was around for many years in the late 90s and early 2000s, but wasn't able to grow because of limited field space. Sundays were the only days that the adult leagues could really function. So in 2008 or 2009, when we installed the field lighting, that was really when the adult league took off. They were then able to expand from just having an open division to doing co-ed divisions, which has been hugely popular. We had up to sixteen teams playing on Friday nights but it kept growing to the point where they really didn't have any more room unless they were going to play games in the dark. Adding field lights nearly tripled the capacity of the complex.
What will the lasting legacy of the John B Lewis Soccer Complex be? How do you think John would feel about a complex named in his honor being so instrumental in the development of soccer in Asheville?
GC: John would have let every player who stepped foot on that field know that it was their “home” and they were to defend it. “You don’t lose at home.” And that’s exactly what he would have considered it – our home. He would have been proud that there was a complex youth players could go, to develop, to play. A place they could be proud of and others wouldn’t look down on. The complex is a unique place and it is producing unique players. He would be proud of that.
MR: If you wanted to look at it from a soccer community vantage point, the John B. Lewis Soccer Complex did something that was very similar to what the Pepsi Center accomplished when Steve Woody and, I think a group of around 13 investors, opened that indoor soccer center. It was bringing the large majority of all soccer people into one place as opposed to being spread out and having a game at this school and a game at that school. It allowed people to see each other and share the experience.
It's hard not to like somebody that you see all the time and have shared interest with and that allows some creativity to grow. We have a pretty robust and pretty cool soccer community. ABYSA is usually around the third largest youth soccer association in North Carolina and ABASA is probably the second largest adult program in the state, not to mention Beer City Cup, which is the largest event of its kind in the country. I don't think that we would have been able to accomplish what we have without having a place to call home where everybody can come together like JBL. We can see each other and think about how to make soccer better and help provide more access to playing. JBL is a home – our soccer house - for us to have those conversations in.
Mike Rottjakob is the Executive Director for Asheville-Buncombe Youth Soccer Association and has been with the organization for 29 years.
Guy Campbell was a friend and teammate of John B. Lewis and is currently a member of the Christ School coaching staff. He is an active member of the Asheville soccer community as well as a former Asheville City player.