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Sources: ‘The fix is in’ at Pack Place

Pack Place (now)_resized

Board remains passive; YMI member calls city’s gambit “a disgrace”

           By Roger McCredie-  Despite repeated indications that it would resist what amounts to a hostile takeover by the City of Asheville, the board of directors of Pack Place Education, Arts and Science Center continued to take no action in that direction when it met last week.

            On the contrary, led by chairman Edward Hay, the board’s discussion centered around scenarios for handing control of the 28-year-old nonprofit corporation over to the city, even as one member, representing the YMI Cultural Institute, called the city’s maneuvering – and the board’s lack of response to it – “a disgrace.”

Although it owns and occupies its own historic building around the corner from the Pack Place headquarters, the YMI, a focal point of Black history and culture in Asheville since 1893, is a full partner in Pack Place along with the Asheville Art Museum, Colburn Earth Sciences Museum and Diana Wortham Theater.  (The Pack Place board is made up of representatives of its partner organizations plus at-large members from the community.  Vice Mayor Marc Hunt sits on the board as a liaison member from the City of Asheville.)

At last week’s meeting trustee-at-large Shirley Whitesides, speaking for the YMI in the absence of its board representative, Richard Fort, said that the fate of the Pack Place corporation and the Pack Place building will have severe consequences for the YMI.  She said this fact has gone largely unheeded during the back-and-forth between the city and Pack Place, and she took the rest of the board to task for not protecting the Pack Place entity from being raided by the city.

“There’s four partners here, not just three,” Whitesides said.  “You need to think about the whole picture.  The way, you’re going now, you’re not only going to have your individual leases [with the city], you’re going to finish closing down the YMI.”  Whitesides was referring to the impact that loss of Pack Place and county support would have on YMI operations. Some members of  Buncombe County Commission, which has heretofore paid for all Pack Place members’ utilities, have already said they will not do so if the city assumes control of Pack Place.

“The people worked hard to get Pack Place started,” said an emotional Whiresides, whose husband, banker and civic leader Al Whitesides, Jr., was a member of Pack Place’s founding board of directors. “When you’re talking about what you’re going to do here [at the Pack Place building] it has a domino effect down the street,” she said.  Nobody cares … the board member [Fort] isn’t even here, hasn’t been here, and the black community doesn’t know what’s going on.

“Y’all can take me off the board but I have to say what’s on my mind; it’s a disgrace.” Whitesides said.

“That’s why you’re on the board; we need to hear that,” said fellow member Patsy Keever. Keever missed the April board meeting when Vice Mayor Marc Hunt ramrodded a resolution from the board to ask the city for a 60-day extension of its present lease so that it could “tie up loose ends” preparatory to letting the city take on the role of landlord through individual direct leases between the Pack Place members and the city.

Hunt’s April move capped a process begun in late January, when city manager Gary Jackson sent the Pack Place board a letter saying it was $800,000 in default for repairs and maintenance not made.  The letter demanded that the Pack Place corporation either pay the city that amount or surrender the premises under the terms of the present lease arrangement with the city.  (The city owns the land on which the building stands, but a default situation would allow the city to acquire the physical plant without compensation.)

At that time, the Pack Place board seemed prepared to take the city to court over what its attorney called a “completely groundless” claim by Jackson.  Member Barbara Field said there was no maintenance default and identified Jackson’s  alleged neglected repairs instead as a list of suggested future improvements she had previously submitted herself, which she said Jackson had “stolen” and turned into “a document to blackmail Pack Place.”

Likewise, the legitimacy of Hunt’s demand that the board ask the city for 60 days’ grace while it puts itself out of business was challenged.  Hunt said he was authorized to deliver the ultimatum but produced no supporting document and the city’s outside attorney, Fred Barbour, acknowledged there was none.  Nevertheless, the board gave Hunt the resolution he asked for.  Two weeks later, in open session, city council retroactively validated Hunt’s and Jackson’s actions by giving them the authorization Hunt had told Pack Place he already had.

This touched off a fresh round of speculation and mixed signals.  Would the board rally, present a unified front, and demand its right to renew its existing lease, even in court?  Hay has asserted multiple times that the board would take the necessary steps to protect itself and its members.

But one member doesn’t want to be protected.  The Asheville Art Museum, which has been embarked on an ambitious $24 million dollar expansion program since 2006 (having immediately expanded into the space vacated by another tenant, The Health Adventure) last fall asked and received permission to “explore the possibility” of a direct lease with the city.  However, according to Field, the art museum did more than explore; it began behind-the-scenes negotiations with the city for its own lease, which is apparently now ready to go into effect as soon as the board’s two-month stay of execution is up on July 31.

Though it has achieved less than half of its goal over eight years and was in default on $2 million in city and county performance grants before the city extended its deadline yet again, the museum has continued to assert dominion over the Pack Place physical plant.  It has put its own signage over the stone-engraved “Pack Place” at the building’s main entrance facing Pack Square and has staked out what used to be the joint front lobby for renovation and redecoration.  The Colburn Museum is now accessible only through the building’s inner courtyard; new signage on the Broadway side directs visitors to the theater.

The Colburn, smallest and most vulnerable of the Pack Place partners, has served notice that it will have to leave Pack Place by the end of the year because it will not be able to cope with lack of school bus access, nor be able to afford the loss of county utilities money that will probably follow when the direct lease arrangement with the city is enacted. Last week Colburn board member Seth Woodall described the proposed lease it had been sent by the city as “a combination eviction notice and death warrant.”  The Colburn will seek new quarters, but has said finding an affordable location will be difficult, particularly since it is vacating a space that was tailor-made for it 22 years ago.

Technically, the board has the authority to terminate the art museum’s association with Pack Place on grounds that it has overstepped its bounds as a Pack Place tenant by actually negotiating a lease with the city when it was only authorized to investigate the possibility of doing so.  The board also still has the authority, for the moment, to rescind the resolution it gave Hunt, assert its right to renew its original lease and, if necessary, take the city to court to enforce that right.

But the board, as a body, has so far taken no action in the face of either the art museum’s  activities or the city’s maneuvering.  Several individual members have strenuously objected to both, but have either grown silent or have had their objections come to naught. In fact, treasurer Michael Andry, who had previously stated the board could “put its foot down,” said in his financial report that the center’s endowment, which totals about half a million dollars, is presently “in several different buckets,” but that these assets “could be combined into one big bucket, or apportioned among the partners” if the partition of Pack Place is carried out and the board becomes, in effect, a shadow entity

“That’s just the kind of thing we need to work together on,” said Hunt.

“The fix is in,” one observer commented.

Earlier, Field  suggested that since the board appeared to be drifting steadily towards a handover, which would result in the termination of the Pack Place staff, the board should consider “some sort of severance package” for employees.  “After all,” she said, “they haven’t done anything … they’ve worked very hard, some of them for many years, to take care of this building and of us, and I think they deserve more than just unemployment insurance. That’s not the way you treat people.”

Field’s suggestion did not survive to become a motion; it was buried under a discussion of equity, partner compensation and sinking funds.  “I love this conversation” board member and former county commissioner Carol Peterson said, “because I don’t have the first idea what you’re talking about.”

At the end of the regular meeting, Hay fended off a motion by Field that the board, excluding Hunt, go into executive session to discuss “certain legal matters” involving correspondence with the center’s attorney which, she said, “no members but the executive committee had seen.”

“I don’t believe there’s anything we’ve talked about that the entire board hasn’t been made aware of,” said Hay, “but if you have questions, you can always have a meeting with [atty.] Mary [Robinson].

“A short little meeting,” Hay added.  “She costs money.”

Two other sources close to the Pack Place controversy summed up the growing perception.

“Based on new comments revealed at the last Board meeting by Ed Hay, Michael Andry and Marc Hunt, I can only conclude that at least two-thirds of the Executive Committee have been in private negotiations with the City and are preparing to hand over the facility, [its] endowments, the legal right to sue … and everything [Pack Place] owns to whatever Partners are able to acquiesce to a lease arrangement with the City,” one source said.

“It seems that those charged with Pack Place’s welfare take two steps backward and are resigned to take the path of least resistance rather than the path that is right,” the other source said.

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