AshevilleNews Stories

Citizens’ group seeks to stop City’s takeover of Pack Place


Michalove at PP Birthday Party RS

Former Asheville mayor Ken Michalove dressed in “mourning” at Pack Place’s twenty-second birthday party

Meanwhile, center staff holds ‘last birthday party’

The so-far informal committee has not said what form its attempt to block the city’s action may take, but one member, speaking on condition of strict anonymity, told the Tribune the coalition is determined “not to let them get away with it.”

“Basically the city has exceeded its authority and probably even acted illegally, and it has used trumped-up excuses to gain control of a property it doesn’t own. It’s very apparent that once they do that, their plan is to turn around and hand the [Pack Place] building over to its little pet, the art museum, which has elbowed its way into taking over most of it.

“And the Pack Place board has just sat there and let them get away with it,” the source said.

The Pack Place building was opened in 1992 (see “The last birthday party?” below). It was financed by city and county taxpayer money, as well as federal block grant funds and contributions from corporate and private donors. The city owns the land on which the building stands and the Pack Place corporation leases it from the city for $10.00 per year. The lease provides that if the city should ever wish to acquire the building, it must make Pack Place, Inc., a fair-market-value offer for it, which Pack Place would be at liberty to negotiate, or to refuse. The city may only acquire Pack Place without compensation if it can show that Pack Place has failed to keep the premises in good repair.

The lease was due for a ten-year renewal in May. But in late January, City Manager Gary Jackson sent Pack Place a letter saying the corporation had defaulted on its lease because it had failed to make repairs that had been needed “for years” and that the city would therefore exercise its lease rights, take control of the physical plant and enter into separate lease agreements with each of Pack Place’s on-premises partners: the Asheville Art Museum, Diana Wortham Theater and the Colburn Earth Sciences Museum, (The Asheville YMI, the fourth Pack Place partner, is housed in its own building.)

A few days later, Mayor Esther Manheimer convened an “informal dialog” meeting with the Pack Place board at which she said the city was open to suggestions about the direct lease arrangements; however, she allowed herself to be contradicted by Vice Mayor Marc Hunt, who is also the city’s liaison member of the Pack Place board. Hunt flatly said that renewing the current lease was not an option.

That was when Pack Place board member and architect Barbara Field, who had been project director for the building of Pack Place, identified Jackson’s list of “defaulted repairs” as a “wish list” of suggested improvements she had drawn up herself. Field accused Jackson of stealing her list and using it “as a document to blackmail Pack Place.”

At its March meeting the Pack Place board discussed how best to respond to Jackson’s demands. And Pack Place’s attorney, Mary Robinson, sent Jackson a letter calling the city’s default claim “completely groundless” and stated that Pack Place would use all legal remedies at its disposal to protect itself and its partners.

But in April, Hunt, with Jackson in tow, told the Pack Place board he had been authorized, at a closed session of city council the night before, to offer a sixty-day extension of the existing lease, provided that by the end of that time Pack Place would be prepared to hand the administration of the property over to the city, which would then enter into separate lease agreements with the city. Hunt produced no document confirming his authorization to make such a demand and brushed aside objections that Pack Place was not in default and the city had no power or cause to make such a demand. In the end, however, Hunt prevailed; the board passed a resolution accepting the 60-day extension (until July 31) to get its affairs in order and phase itself out.

Two weeks later, city council passed its own resolution authorizing Hunt to do what he had already done.

Pack Place’s smallest partner, the Colburn Museum, served notice that it had no choice but to leave Pack Place as it would be unable to afford continuing to operate once the city took over. ( Meanwhile the art museum, which has been pushing for a direct lease with the city since last fall and which has already expanded into much of the building’s internal space, has said it needs to finalize its arrangements with the city immediately in order to implement the next stage of a capital fundraising plan it has been pursuing since 2006.)

Last month the board, operating under the extension, notified the city that it intended to renew its existing lease, the very move which Hunt had already said was unacceptable. Consensus was that the board’s action was a gesture only, and that the city would either reject the lease renewal, as Hunt had said, or just ignore it.

“Central to the City, County, Federal (Block Grant) and Donor investment to create Pack Place was to create a SUSTAINABLE home for the area arts and education non-profits, and to remove local politics from the decision making process for their needs.  Sadly, the recent actions by the City Council and lack of responsible action by the Pack Place Board have rendered all those millions and good intentions moot,” another committee member said in a prepared statement.

Another member, speaking off the cuff, was more pointed.

“I was flabbergasted,” the source said, “when the [Pack Place] board let Hunt and Jackson pull that stunt. The law is on [Pack Place’s] side. They should have thrown Hunt off the board for conflict of interest. They should have kicked the art museum out for acting in bad faith as a Pack Place partner. They should have sent the city a ten-dollar check and said, ‘Here’s our rent and a signed copy of the renewed lease. If you want to keep up this charade of yours, we’ll see you in court.’ They had every right to do that but they didn’t.”

The last birthday party?

On the Fourth of July, Pack Place Education, Arts and Science Center held its twenty-second birthday party.

Unaware of the brewing opposition to the city’s takeover, staffers and administrators joined in what they called a hail-and-farewell affair; a thank-you from the unique nonprofit to its founders, sponsors, benefactors and its annual supporters, including all the taxpayers of Asheville and Buncombe County.

There was a birthday cake, along with soft drinks donated by Pepsi-Cola of Asheville, one of Pack Place’s founding donors. On display were scrapbooks tracing the development of Pack Place from concept through construction, to its national recognition as a unique, self-contained arts and science center, the jewel in the crown of Asheville’s burgeoning cultural life. Prominently displayed was a photo of the enthusiastic crowd around the speakers’ platform on Jul 4, 1992, when the building was dedicated.

Among those present at the little birthday party last week was Ken Michalove, who had stood on the platform that day, as mayor of Asheville, and said of Pack Place in mountain terms, “Hit’s our’n.” On this birthday, Michalove was dressed all in black and wore a name tag saying, “The End is Near.”

But that’s not the view of the nucleus of citizens preparing for a last-ditch battle. Asked what the group’s tactics might be, a spokesperson said, “We have several ways we can go. We may end up using a combination of them. We can’t say anything else right now.”

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