SECU: Art Museum approached us ‘months ago’

November 25, 2014 Asheville , City - County Gov. , News Stories 3130 Views
SECU: Art Museum approached us ‘months ago’

SECU Plaza RS

Had no idea renaming would be controversial, official says

By Roger McCredie-  The head of a foundation that has paid the Asheville Art Museum $1.5 million for the right to name a corner of Pack Square “SECU Plaza” says plans for the project were in the works months before before it was mentioned to the full Asheville City Council, whose approval was needed for the plan to go forward.

The time frame mentioned by Mark Twisdale, CEO of the State Employees Credit Union Foundation, means that the museum apparently proposed the naming rights sale while it was still a tenant partner of Pack Place Arts, Science and Educational Center.

Twisdale told the Tribune in a November 7 telephone interview that the art museum first approached the foundation, which is the charitable giving arm of the credit union, “about nine months ago.” He said that SECU and the museum have been in continuous contact since that time, and that there have been “three or four” face-to-face meetings between museum and foundation officers including himself, art museum Executive Director Pam Myers, and “somebody named Rebecca,” who apparently would have been Rebecca Lynch-Maas, director of the museum’s capital gifts campaign.

Since the city claims to own the property in question, which is the southwest corner of Pack Square — though that assumption itself is open to question (see below) — doing anything with it would require council’s approval.  The art museum, apparently acting on the premise that it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission, waited until late October, after it had already sold the naming rights to SECU, to inform city council of the deal and seek ratification of it.

Council thus found itself on the horns of a dilemma before the issue was even brought up for discussion.  It could either delay or deny the art museum’s after-the-fact approval request, or it could set aside its own approval process, accept SECU’s grant (which is payable to the city), turn around and hand the money to the art museum and risk creating a public outcry.  In the end, council at its October 28 meeting chose the latter course, despite some token grumbling among its members and impassioned comments from the public (See “SECU pays art museum $1.5MM for ‘naming rights’,” Nov. 6)

As for SECU, Twisdale said his foundation had negotiated with the art museum in good faith and that the grant was made purely in the interest of  contributing to what was represented as a lively fundraising campaign that had broad community support. The naming rights issue, he said, was incidental. “We didn’t do it [make the grant] to put our name on something, we did it to support the arts,” he added.

At his request, the Tribune forwarded to Twisdale copies of articles from the Tribune, the Asheville Citizen-Times and Mountain Xpress dealing with the art museum’s capital fund campaign and the revelation of the naming rights deal, as well as links to videos of meetings of the Pack Place board and of city council, including council’s stormy October 28 meeting and the November12 Pack Place meeting at which board member Carol Peterson attempted to question Myers.

However Twisdale did not return follow-up phone calls and e-mails from the Tribune.

The back story

Twisdale’s assertion that the art museum first approached SECU “about nine months ago” would make that action squarely coincide with the art museum’s insistence on being allowed to negotiate a direct lease with the city, and also with the city’s first moves to take over Pack Place.

In the fall of 2013 the art museum obtained permission from the Pack Place board to “investigate the possibility” of a direct lease with the city.  Permission was granted despite objections that such a move could destroy the corporate structure of Pack Place and that, at any rate, the city had no ownership whatsoever of the Pack Place building; it owned the ground on which the building stands, which it leased to Pack Place corporation for $10 a year.

By January of 2014 the art museum was demanding to be allowed to go forward with a direct lease, on grounds that it had promised “significant donors” to its capital fund drive that it would operate independently of the rest of Pack Place.

(The museum began its fundraising efforts in 2006, with a stated goal of $24 million.  By 2012 records indicated it had only raised $11.4 million and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority had twice warned that the museum had failed to meet fundraising levels stipulated in TDA grant contracts totaling $1.5 million and was in default.  This did not deter city council from earmarking $2 million in city funds for the museum.  This sumer the museum declared it has raised $15 million of a total of $17 – not $24 – million.  TDA extended its contract deadline a third time.)

On January 29 City Manager Gary Jackson informed Pack Place by letter that it would be taking over the center’s operations because Pack Place had not kept the premises in proper repair.  Pack Place called the city’s claims bogus and produced supporting evidence, but in April Vice Mayor Mark Hunt demanded that Pack Place abandon its landlord role and release its tenants to deal directly with the city.  When the Pack Place board asked for time to review and respond to the city’s demands, art museum chairman Lin Andews said, “We can’t wait that long.” In the end Pack Place capitulated.  It was later revealed that the art museum, during that time, had been negotiating its own lease with the city anyway.

Then a strange thing happened:  Having obtained the lease it had pressed so hard for, the museum sat on it.  It did not, in fact, sign the lease until literally hours before the October 28 city council meeting at which the SECU deal was presented for approval.  Neither SECU nor the art museum has said when the naming rights deal was finalized, but there was widespread speculation that the museum did not execute its Pack Place lease with the city until it had the SECU grant in hand.

So, to summarize …

SECU has said that it made a $1.5 million grant to the Asheville Art Museum in exchange for the right to rename a corner of Pack Square “SECU Plaza,” and that it did so on the merits of the art museum’s application.  SECU has now gone quiet.

Whether either the city or the art museum has the power to convey naming rights to the area in question has not been established.  The city’s takeover of Pack Place may yet be challenged in court according to the Pack Place board; moreover, plats and overlays obtained by the Tribune show that the area in question clearly falls within the limits of the property deeded to the city by George W. Pack for use as a city square in perpetuity.  (Pack’s heirs successfully sued to prevent a similar takeover attempt of another part of the Square several years ago.)

The Tribune intends to file a federal Freedom of Information Act request with appropriate agencies to obtain copies of documents exchanged by and between the art museum and SECU.

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