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Art museum joins city in forcing issue of Pack Place leases

Pack Place springRS

By Roger McCredie-An exchange during last week’s meeting of the Pack Place, board of directors left little doubt as to who intends to call the shots about the future of Asheville’s arts and cultural center. And it isn’t the Pack Place corporation, or even the City of Asheville. It’s the Asheville Art Museum.

The verbal fencing match took place between Pack Place corporate treasurer Michael Andry and Lin Andrews, a Pack Place trustee and board member of the Art Museum.

Under discussion was the issue of separate direct lease agreements between the individual Pack Place tenants and the city. The Art Museum has been pushing hard for such an arrangement, which would effectively dismantle the Pack Place corporation, for several months and has apparently had its own direct agreement with the city ready since January. The theater and the museum did not receive city leases for review until March 7, against a March 31 reply deadline, and have asked for more time to prepare counterproposals.

“If we vote today that Pack Place is going forward as one body, and nobody gets a sublease and nobody gets a direct lease [with the city] would the Art Museum be happy with that?” Andry asked.

“As you know,” Andrews said, “[the Art Museum] is going ahead with our plans [the direct lease with the city] so that we can complete our expansion.”

“But,” said Andry, “Pack Place does have the ability to just say ‘no’ and that would throw a big curve ball into everything – “

“Well,” Andrews shot back, “If you [the Board and other Pack Place partners] said no, then we would have to react to that.” Andrews did not elaborate as to what “react” might mean.

“The challenge is to make this happen within the time frame we have been dealt,” Andry said. “The theater and the Colburn just got their leases five days ago. The Art Museum got its lease sometime in January. You have a two-month head start … if you start drawing those lines in the sand, you’re going to make people mad.”

Andrews gave a verbal shrug. “Well, then people are going to get mad,” she said.

Remaining silent throughout this give-and-take were City Manager Gary Jackson, Atty. Fred Barbour, acting for the city, and Pack Place Chairman Ed Hay, who was conducting the meeting and.ording to comments he made earlier in the meeting, may not have an entity to preside over come June 1. Andry’s and Andrews’ dialogue, however, encapsulated the tension and hostility that have been building between the Art Museum on one hand and the other two Pack Place tenants on the other for months, and particularly since the end of January.

That was when Jackson sent a demand letter to Pack Place, Inc., for nearly $800,000 to cover alleged repairs and maintenance that had not been duly performed. At an informal “dialog” meeting between the Pack Place board and city officials on Feb. 18, architect Barbara Field, chairman of the Pack Place building committee who served as project director when Pack Place was built, called Jackson’s move “pure fantasy” and said it was based not on actual maintenance defaults but on a “wish list” of suggested improvements. “You guys have basically stolen that list from me and attached it to a document you are using to blackmail Pack Place,” a furious Fields told city representatives at the time.

Under the present arrangement, the Pack Place, Inc., owns the building, and theoretically has authority over any physical changes made or contemplated by its member tenants, hence Andry’s reference to the board’s being able to say “no” to a demand it feels it cannot or should not have to meet.

But the city owns the land on which the building stands and a clause in its agreement with Pack Place provides that if the Pack Place corporation ever defaults on maintaining the building adequately, the city can take it over without having to pay Pack Place a penny in compensation. Accordingly, non-Art Museum Pack Place board members see Jackson’s demand as part of an elaborate and heavy-handed power play by the city to eliminate, or at least neutralize, Pack Place, Inc., by using Fields’ “wish list” to create a bogus default. The city, they say, would then install itself as sole owner, and, would in effect hand control of the building over to the Art Museum, which has planned a $24 million expansion program that would nearly double the size of the Pack Place physical plant.

The Art Museum, which had already defaulted twice on $2 million worth of Tourism Development Authority grants, recently received assistance from the city in the form of a third contract extension. The museum’s grant funds are still safely escrowed despite the museum’s failure, so far, to reach interim fundraising goals of its own capital campaign, which has been ongoing since 2006.

Both Jackson and city council member Marc Hunt have stated in e-mails that the default gambit is in fact part of the city’s “strategy” for assuming direct ownership of the Pack Place building.

Such a move would have implications at the county level as well. Under an existing agreement the county picks up the tab for Pack Place’s utilities, which amount to about half a million dollars a year. If the city succeeds in forcing its “default” plan, dismantling the Pack Place corporate structure and entering into direct leases with the tenants, the county – according to one commissioner – would likely terminate the utilities arrangement. “The county isn’t going to pay the city’s bills,” the commissioner said.

This was particularly ominous news for the smallest and oldest of Pack Place’s tenants, the Colburn Earth Science Museum. Vicky Ballard, Executive Director of the Colburn, has stated that the Colburn’s budget is so tight that if it were deprived of the county’s contribution, it would have to close its doors after 54 years in operation. During the February 18 meeting, former county commissioner Carol Peterson said the city’s takeover bid is a “hot button” commission issue; however, County Commissioner Joe Belcher, who attended last week’s meeting, was silent on the subject.

A perennially popular science self-education venue for adults and a favorite field trip destination for area schools for more than half a century, the museum is home to an internationally-recognized gem and mineral collection, is listed in the Carolinas/Georgia edition of Fodor’s International Guidebooks and hosts a “summer science camp” for students in grades 1 – 6.

Recent tax returns showed Ballard’s salary as $26,000. Diana Wortham executive director John Ellis’ compensation was in excess of $94,000, while Pam Myers, as head of the Art Museum, received $109,000 in salary and another $14,000 in allowances.

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