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‘There is no cavalry. There is only injustice.’

Pack Place board room RS

Pack Place Center’s limbo takes toll on those who work for it

The conclusions it reached were (1) yes, but not very much; and (2) form a committee (see below).

A board of directors (with rotating members) has governed and managed the uniquely conceived entity since its formation in 1988. On August 1, however, all that changed. The city of Asheville, after months of argument, threats and rationalization, succeeded in entering into separate lease agreements with each of the Pack Place partner organizations, leaving the board intact but with no authority and unsure of its role and duties.

It also leaves the people who work for the Pack Place corporation facing an uncertain future and having to decide between scouting a less-than-robust job market or hanging onto their present jobs as long as those jobs exist – which is a question that has yet to be resolved.

The human factor

Pack Place employs a staff of nine persons, ranging from Managing Director Heather Nelson to visitor services and custodial personnel to part-time event coordinators. This has been the team that has made the partners’ events happen, cleaned up afterwards and maintained the building on a day-to-day basis, in addition to orienting and guiding visitors. They have watched the 18-month power struggle between the city and Pack Place unfold, says one, “like a bird watching a snake.”

As lofty and intense discussions have unfolded about who really owns Pack Place, what the duties of the board and the members are and what the role of the city should be in the affairs of a private nonprofit, the Monty Python query, “What about the workers?” has been given short shrift.

Nelson, for instance, has spent 13 years – almost a third of her life – at Pack Place. She began as a bookkeeper and quickly assumed more and more hands-on-duties until, according to colleague and head of visitor services Tom Chalmers, “There is nothing she doesn’t know about the inner workings of Pack Place and what it needs at any given time. Nothing.” How are you going to replace a Heather?”

Nelson, single mom of a teenage daughter now starting to look at colleges, says she has seen the Pack Place fight develop from the beginning although she has been allowed virtually no input. “I’m not invited to executive council meetings,” she says. With bills and obligations, she has tried to stay ahead of the inevitable pink slip by lining up freelance bookkeeping work while at the same time “just tuning out everything and doing my job here.”

On July 16, the city rejected Nelson’s offer, which was made at the request of the Pack Place Board, to renew the existing lease. The following day, Pack Place counsel Mary Robinson sent a letter putting the city on notice that the Pack Place Board intended to use all legal means at its disposal to protect the integrity of the Pack Place physical plant and corporation. By this time, Pack Place employees, walking a fine line between hope and despair, began breaking out in cold sweat.

The morning after city council’s July 22 meeting, at which it passed the set of direct leases by which it intends to govern Pack Place, Chalmers, for his part, e-mailed Pack Place board chairman Edward Hay, looking for encouragement or at least a reliable update.

“Ed,” Chalmers said, “I will withhold any opinions or commentary on last night’s City Council vote and just ask you what does this mean for employees of Pack Place? How long can we expect to still be at our current positions? Please, as soon as you can, let me know what can be expected with Pack Place employment now that the City has usurped control of the building.”

To which Hay replied:

“I wish I could give you some hope, but as of right now, I cannot. Pack places lease terminates July 31. We have made several proposals to the city over the last several weeks which would keep Pack Place active for the next year, but the city wanted no part of it.”

Chalmers forwarded Hay’s reply to Nelson with a comment of his own:

“Well there is this bit of lovely news (see below). Doesn’t seem like we, or at least I, will be employed here all that much longer. There is no cavalry. There are no public defenders. There is just injustice.”

And meanwhile, back in the board room … “

There was no further sparring about the city’s right or authority to do what it has succeeding in doin at the July 30 meeting, and very little discussion of precisely how the city would eventually take up the slack for services heretofore provided to the partner-tenants by Pack Place. The nine-person Pack Place staff has an annual payroll of about $162,000. (By way of perspective, Asheville Art Museum Executive Director Pam Myers is paid $123,000 in salary and expense allowance.)

Pack Place eventually agreed to keep its staff in place for the time being as a sort of glorified janitorial service for the partners. “Time being” was not defined. “It could be three weeks or six months,” board members said – a remark which drew fire from Pack Place staff who would like to know where they stand.

The board also agreed to the formation of a transition committee, compiled of members of the partner organizations, to facilitate the untimate city takeover. The board itself is not to be involved, according to Art Museum representative Lin Andrews. “This is for the Prtmehrs. Pack Place now belongs to the partners,” she said.

Vice Mayor Marc Hunt stressed the need for a resolution to that effect so that it could be sent to county commission, who has already said it will give Pack Place its $409,000 stipend this year, provided that Pack Place does not change its business structure.

So they want to convince the county Pack Place hasn’t changed in order to get hold of that money, while they go ahead and change the whole framework of Pack Place,” one observer said.

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