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Pack Place prepares to pack it in

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Pack Place (now)

Solid opposition to ‘done deal’ fails to materialize

By Roger McCredie-  Weekly newspaper schedules being what they are, it will be Wednesday, July 30, before this issue of the Tribune reaches its readers, in either print or online form.

That’s the same day Pack Place’s life as an independent entity is apparently due to end.

At what may be its final effective meeting on Wednesday (July 30), Pack Place’s board of directors is expected to take up the logistics of shutting the corporation down, distributing its assets among its partners as provided in its charter, and handing the keys over to the City of Asheville.

At its July 22 meeting, city council formally passed a set of resolutions authorizing the issuing of separate leases to the Pack Place partners, in spite of a months-long debate as to whether it even had the power to do so and threats of legal action to prevent that from happening.

Recent correspondence obtained by the Tribune indicates that the attorney for the arts and educational center said it was ready to go to court to prevent what amounts to a hostile takeover by the city, on grounds that the city’s move to acquire Pack Place has been based on trumped-up charges of default and months of double dealing.  But no actual legal steps have been taken, nor is there any indication that the Pack Place Board, despite continued urging, will use this final meeting to do so. The city appears to have successfully run out the clock.

Plans by a loosely organized committee of private citizens to sue the city for improper action, and perhaps also sue the Pack Place board for lack of due diligence, have also failed to gain any traction due to a lack of standing and failure to find a local attorney willing to take on their case.

That case rests on the premise that the city had no authority to do what it has managed to do anyway.

That’s because under the about-to-expire lease, the city does not own the Pack Place building.  It owns the land on which the building stands, which it leases it to Pack Place for ten dollars a year on behalf of its tenant-partners, the Asheville Art Museum, Diana Wortham Theater, and the Colburn Earth Science Museum (one original member, The Health Adventure, went off on its own and subsequently went bankrupt; the Asheville YMI, though it is a partner, occupies its own building.)

Until earlier this month, city officials, especially Vice Mayor Marc Hunt and City Manager Gary Jackson, who have spearheaded the takeover, maintained that the city did own the physical plant, and this assertion has been duly repeated by most local media outlets – most recently Mountain Xpress — as accepted fact.  Recently the city has been substituting the term “real estate” and avoiding the word “building.”

According to the lease, if the city should ever wish to acquire the Pack Place building, it must pay fair market value compensation to Pack Place, which would then share out with its partners.  The only exception to this proviso is if Pack Place should fail to maintain the premises in good repair, in which case the city may declare Pack Place in default and take over control of the building without having to pay any compensation, essentially gutting the board of its authority in the process.

In January, the city suddenly invoked that clause.  Jackson informed the Pack Place board by letter that that it had “for years” failed to make extensive repairs to its building and was therefore in default.  Pack Place, through its attorney, called the city’s charges “groundless.”  The alleged defaulted repairs were instead identified as a list of suggested future improvements compiled by Pack Place board member Barbara Field, who had been the project manager for the Pack Place building.

Undeterred, Hunt, with Jackson in tow, appeared at the Pack Place board meeting in April and said he had been authorized at a closed city council session the previous night, to give Pack Place a 60-day extension on the current lease (until August 1) to “tie up loose ends,” after which the city would take over operations. The board grumbled but agreed to Hunt’s deadline.

Two protected inside sources told the Tribune no action on Pack Place had been taken at the closed session.  Two weeks later council passed a resolution authorizing Hunt to make the demand he had made two weeks before.

Belatedly Pack Place decided to defend itself.  Managing Director Heather Nelson was instructed to send the city a check for next year’s rent and apply for a lease renewal.  Nelson did so on June 19.  The city sat on Nelson’s renewal letter for four weeks before rejecting it.

The next day, July 17, Pack Place attorney Mary Robinson  sent a letter to the city’s outside attorney, Fred Barbour, demanding compensation under the terms of the lease and proposing that the Pack Place board remain in place to oversee the building’s operations. “If the city does not either agree to renew its current lease or reach an alternative agreement with Pack Place, then Pack Place reserves it right to demand full reimbursement for the loss of Pack Place Center,” Robinson told Barbour.

At the July 22 city council meeting, Michalove appeared, like the ghost at the feast, and fired a parting volley.  The city, he said, could not under law assume control of Pack Place without paying Pack Place an estimated $5 million in compensation. He said the Colburn museum had been “bullied” into leaving Pack Place, and he said the relentless ambition of the art museum has been the driving force behind the city’s steamroller tactics.

“The Asheville Art Museum,” Michalove said, “Is a poor excuse for a nonprofit corporation.  They are a greedy group … that has been feeding at the tax trough for too long … They have wrecked Pack Place by their direct dealing with the Asheville City Council [in] violation of their partnership agreement with Pack Place … unfortunately the City Council and manager have devised a public stance that supports the Art Museum’s hidden agenda.”

Michalove also charged that the city raised taxes three cents in 2014, with two cents earmarked for the art museum, then renamed the revenue “Pack Place maintenance” and moved it out to 2017.  “City taxpayers should be outraged,” he said.

Council heard Michalove out, then passed it lease resolutions.  Under their provisions, the theater is to pay the city $105,000 and the art museum $147,000 over a five-year period.

Except that the art museum’s payments are deferred for three years while it undertakes its renovation of the building.

The Colburn museum will pay the city $1,450 a month to occupy its space for one year while it tried to find another home. The art museum and the theater are reportedly already negotiating over who will get what portion of the Colburn’s space once it vacates.

Besides Michalove a number of past and present city movers and shakers, including former mayoral candidate and city consultant John Miall, former Pack Place and Civic Center executive director Bill Murphy and developer/entrepreneur Ted Prosser, have said that they feel the Pack Place board, despite its perfunctory saber-rattling, has been just as much to blame for Pack Place’s demise as has the city, citing a “total lack of leadership” on the part of Pack Place’s executive committee and especially board chairman Edward Hay.

Former city councilman Carl Mumpower declined to comment on the takeover other than to say, “My daddy always told me not to try to break up a fight between two idiots.”

Fighting to the last ditch, Michalove on Monday issued yet another appeal to chronically absent local media to cover the Pack Place board’s July 30 meeting, apparently in hopes that the board would act in accordance with Robinson’s letter.

But it seems that come Thursday, Pack Place’s 22-year run as a self-contained, multi-faceted cultural center will lurch to a shuddering halt.

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