Art museum gets (another) reprieve

Pack Place (now)_resized

Fundraising deadline extended; independence from Pack Place seems likely

By Roger McCredie-In a dramatic reversal of its previous position, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority has given the Asheville Art Museum a six-month extension of its deadline for meeting fundraising goals that will allow the release of $2 million in city and county funds to the museum for its ambitious expansion program.

The TDA extension came just two days before Asheville’s Vice Mayor revealed that the museum’s new grace period is actually part of a larger move to enter into direct lease agreements with the entities housed in the Pack Place cultural complex, effectively stripping the Pack Place Corporation of most of its authority. The art museum has pushed for such a direct lease arrangement with the city for several years.

Another extension

According to councilman Jan Davis, who is the city’s ex officio member of TDA, the agreement to extend its deadline for meeting the grant contract requirements was made after art museum executive director Pam Myers made a presentation to TDA’s Tourism Product Development Fund TPDF) Committee. The extension stipulates that the museum must conduct an audit to verify the amount of money generated by its own efforts towards an overall fundraising goal of $17 million out of a total estimated project cost of $24 million.

Asked who would be conducting the audit, Davis said, “They [the museum] will be responsible for doing it themselves, through a private firm.”

The museum stated last year that it had raised approximately $11.4 million since beginning its capital fundraising efforts in 2006. Together with the $2 million in grant money now held in escrow by TDA, this would leave a balance of $3.6 million for the museum to raise by the new deadline.

That $2 million — $1.5 million in county and $500,000 in city public funds – was earmarked for the museum in grants issued in 2007 and 2009 respectively. A third grant application in 2010 was denied due to a lack of satisfactory progress of the museum’s own fundraising. Last summer TDA informed the museum that the first two grant contracts were considered to be in default and gave it until January 31 of this year to bring its fundraising into line or risk losing the existing escrowed funds. The action to extend the deadline took place at TDA’s meeting on January 29, 48 hours before the museum’s deadline, but sometime after Myers’ TDPF presentation.

The Pack Place Factor

The Art Museum is one of three tenants, together with Diana Wortham Theatre and the Colburn Earth Sciences Museum, that occupy the Pack Place Cultural Center building. Last year, during an emerging debate over costs of repairs to the Pack Place physical plant, Myers, as well as Mayor Esther Manheimer (who was then Vice Mayor) and other key players repeatedly stated that the city “owned” Pack Place. In fact, the city owns the land on which the building stands and rents it to Pack Place for $10 a year. (The current lease expires and will be up for renewal this coming May.)

The distinction seems minor but is actually pivotal. Under the lease provisions, the city could assume outright ownership of the property but would have to compensate Pack Place accordingly. However, the lease also provides that Pack Place must maintain the property and failure to do so adequately constitutes default, in which case the city could acquire direct ownership of the building without compensating anybody. The Art Museum would thus have what it has been seeking for some time: a direct lease from a city government that has shown itself highly receptive to the museum’s requests and plans – to the extent, some have said, of short-changing the other Pack Place occupants.

The city appeared to be making the opening move in this gambit on Jan. 27, when City Manager Gary Jackson sent the Pack Place board a letter demanding an initial payment of $419,800 within sixty days (thereby invoking the lease provision) and another $398,400 within the next 12 months.

Vice Mayor Marc Hunt piled on, saying Pack Place “has not dutifully looked after the maintenance of the building” and adding that the city’s attempt to work with Pack Place “has frankly not gone well.” He called the city’s demands “tough love” — a phrase he also used in speaking with the Tribune last fall – and unabashedly referred to the repair demand as part of a “strategy” to bypass the Pack Place board and control the tenants directly.

Hunt emphatically denied, however, the city was handing the Art Museum the very thing it had been pushing for, saying there was no connection. He told the Tribune, “The City is focused on Pack Place Center functioning as best it possibly can to ensure the success of all the occupants (Colburn Earth Science Museum, Diana Wortham Theater, and  Asheville Art Museum), not any one of them more than the others.  Their successes are critical to the future of the community.”

The Tribune reminded Hunt that Myers, as well as Manheimer and others, stated last summer that the museum intended to use part of its grant money for repairs, which would benefit the entire Pack Place complex. Hunt was asked, “If Pack Place Corporation can’t meet the city’s demand and the city becomes the Art Museum’s direct landlord, will it deduct a pro-rated share of the repair costs from the Art Museum’s grant money?  Or how would that work?”

Hunt replied, “Given the legal context to all this, I will defer this question to Dawa Hitch and to the city’s attorney in this matter, Fred Barbour.” Neither Barbour nor Hitch had responded by press time.

Councilman Gordon Smith, who was Davis’ predecessor as the city’s representative on the TDA board, declined comment on Hunt’s “strategy” remark. “I’ll refer you to Councilman Hunt,” Smith said. “This is a very complicated situation, and [Hunt] has a handy fact sheet for journalists.”

The Tribune has not yet seen the handy fact sheet.

One former insider’s take

John Miall, former longtime city administrator and an unsuccessful candidate for mayor in 2013, said, “All this intrigue and all this jockeying for position, and the people who are being totally ignored are the taxpayers. Pack Place isn’t going to take this lying down [Atty. Edward Hay, Pack Place Board Chairman, has already indicated an attempted city takeover would mean litigation] and it’s the taxpayers who will foot the bill for those grants and the court fight and everything else.

“This whole thing stinks,” Miall said.

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