AshevilleNews Stories

Art Museum has Bridge to Sell

SECU Plaza copy

                                        Artists rendering of SECU Plaza

SECU pays art museum $1.5MM for ‘naming rights’

Only one problem: It’s not theirs to sell. Or the city’s, either

The naming rights deal was brokered by the city of Asheville, which claims to be the museum’s new landlord under the terms of a lease that was prepared under flawed conditions in August. The art museum had pushed for a direct lease with the city for many months, but once the lease was drafted, the museum mysteriously sat on it until the SECU plan was unveiled.

This led to widespread speculation that the museum had been negotiating with SECU in the interim, waiting until it had a commitment from the credit union, then springing the whole package on city council, thus backing the city into a corner and leaving it with little choice other than to approve the arrangement.

Among the speculators were several members of city council, who expressed dismay at the art museum’s forcing of the issue, which came before Council at its Oct. 28 meeting.

Gwen Wisler was the most outspoken about the maneuver. “What I’m really uncomfortable with is the lack of communication,” she said. “I feel we are a little backed into a corner because the city and the art museum didn’t communicate or didn’t communicate on a timely basis. I for one was not aware that the lease contained provisions for naming rights, and I’m … frustrated by that.”

Wisler called the art museum’s maneuvering “bait and switch.”

Vice Mayor Marc Hunt, doggedly insisting that Pack Place “is a city building,” cited the art museum’s progress in its fundraising, and said, “Our task tonight is to move forward … I think things are on a great trajectory at Pack Place … State Employees’ Credit Union, in good faith … has stepped up to commit $1.5 million to improve a city-owned building.

“It is true,” Hunt went on, “that we have very imperfect circumstances … the order was a bit reversed here,” he said, referring to the museum’s cutting its deal with SECU before seeking Council approval. “We know that the art museum entered into a contract [first] with SECU for the naming rights. Is that a good thing? No … It’s not an acceptable way to go forward in the future … but again, our question tonight is whether or not to move forward. It’s not a simple decision, there are mixed trade-offs. Has the public been engaged? The answer is no.”

But Hunt said that the city’s new lease with the art museum – which had not been seen by most council members until shortly before the meeting – “contemplates naming rights.”

(Hunt partnered with City Manager Gary Jackson in engineering the city’s takeover of Pack Place and has consistently championed the art museum and its interests.)

Councilman Cecil Bothwell called attention to naming precedents already set in the city center area, including Roger McGuire Green. “Certainly [McGuire’s] memory was entitled to that, but nobody asked me,” Bothwell said. “The names shift as the years go by … ‘Pack’ was a very big name at the time. Did he put one point five million into that building? I don’t know.”

Bothwell did not indicate what building he meant. The Pack Place building was completed in 2002, nearly a century after Pack’s death.

“We need to do this [any future naming rights proposals] carefully, diligently and responsibly, going forward. That’s what I’m about,” Hunt said.

Art museum Executive Director Pam Myers, who apparently engineered the SECU deal, did not attend the council meeting. During public comment art museum board member Tina McGuire said, “We share your concerns about the process … we have attempted to follow the plans set forth through the lease … we’re very committed to respecting that this is a public space. At the same time, McGuire said, “we are very proud that we are very close, with this investment, to our $17 million goal.”

(The art museum’s stated fundraising goal has varied. In 2012 it was put at $24 million, of which the museum said it had raised $11.4 million. Earlier this year the museum said it had raised $15 million of a goal of only $17 million. The $1.5 million SECU deal would almost complete the amended goal and would enable the art museum to collect on $2 million in escrowed city funds and another $1.5 in Buncombe County Tourist and Development Association grant. The museum has technically defaulted three times on the TDA grant, but in each case has been able to extend its performance contract.)

McGuire was the only member of the public to speak on behalf of the SECU Plaza proposal. Leslie Anderson, who was involved in the planning of Pack Place, gave an impassioned speech calling attention to Pack Square’s historical significance and cited the terms of George Willis Pack’s deeding of the property for use as a public square in perpetuity.

“The Asheville Art Museum demonstrated a lack of appreciation for this history,” Anderson said. She said the art museum’s lease, “just signed today … killed the idea of a mixed-use cultural center on that site. She also charged that the lease terms, including the naming rights clause, “was kept amazingly quiet.” She asked if there were provisions to rein in the selling of further naming rights. “The precedent you set today is a slippery slope,” she said.

Adrian Vassalo, head of the Asheville Downtown Commission, vigorously objected to that body’s not being consulted or even informed of the negotiations with SECU, and also complained that the city’s $2 million set-aside for the art museum was never mentioned to the ADA, which is charged with reviewing downtown projects. “It seems clear that you’re going to vote for this tonight,” Vassalo said, “but we have started a path of resentment and divisiveness that started in 2012 with that contribution to the museum.”

Then came the oldest and most tenacious opponent of the city’s Pack Place acquisition, former Asheville mayor Ken Michalove

“This lease,” Michalove said, waving a copy, “the ink’s not dry on it. I couldn’t get it until after four o’clock today.” [Council meets at 5 p.m.] This lease was supposed to have been completed by August 14. The public has not even had a chance to look at this lease.” He then harked back to the city’s hostile takeover of Pack Place, saying the city “will leave itself open for a lawsuit that will cost the taxpayers over five million dollars, not including damages and legal fees.

“Mayor Manheimer, Vice Mayor Hunt and City Manager Jackson have let personal friendship with Pam Myers get in the way of sound business decisions. They have convinced the rest of the council to vote blindly. These three, particularly vice Mayor Hunt, were more interested in crushing the Pack Place partnership … than making the sound business decisions for which they were elected.”

Michalove was alluding to the situation that has been the elephant in the room of the city’s taking of Pack Place from the beginning: the city, under the original Pack Place charter, does not own the Pack Place building. It only owns the ground underneath it, The city sidestepped discussion of this pivotal point by accusing Pack Place of failing to maintain its facility, which was the only condition under which the city could legally take over the property. Last February Jackson told Pack Place it was in default and produced a list of alleged repairs it claimed Pack Place had failed to make. This list later proved to be a “wish list” compiled by architect Barbara Field, who accused the city of stealing it and turning it into a blackmail instrument.

Further, the forecourt for which SECU is paying naming right, is an integral part of the original Pack grant. Some years ago the Pack family successfully sued to prevent the renaming of another strip of land within the square.

The Tribune canvassed Pack Place board members and city officials by e-mail, seeking verifiable input on the issue of who in the final analysis actually owns Pack Place and whether, since that issue has yet to be resolved once and for all, it would undermine SECU-s good-faith purchase of the naming rights. No responses had been received as of press time.

Share this story
Show More

Related Articles