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Connecting the dots…


Asheville Art Museum.  “SECU Plaza.” City Hall: Who did what, how and when? A summary and analysis

By Roger McCredie-  Astronomers know that rare planetary alignments are not random events; each celestial body involved follows its own established trajectory, and the convergence of all at a certain time and place in the sky is perfectly predictable, provided that enough of a given trajectory is known so that its further course can be plotted.  Thus, what appears to the casual observer to be a sudden and dramatic phenomenon is actually the inevitable outcome of forces set in motions aeons ago.

Thus the recent revelation that the Asheville Art Museum had sold to State Employees’ Credit Union the right to rename the area in front of the main entrance of what used to be Pack Place “SECU Plaza” in exchange for $1.5 million startled – and outraged – many Ashevillians who may not have been aware that the trajectories of the three players – the museum, SECU and Asheville City Council – had been established long before.

The planetary alignment became fully visible at the October 28 meeting of city council, when three things happened: (1) it was revealed that the museum had already entered into the naming rights contract without having first received permission from council, in the form of a resolution, to do so;  (2) the art museum, despite objections from some individual council members, passed the necessary resolution after the fact; and finally (3) it was also revealed that the museum’s direct lease with the city, which actually needed to be in place before the museum could legally negotiate with SECU at all, had been signed just hours before the council meeting, although it had been prepared and dated three months before, on August 1.

The three separate arcs that converged in council chambers on October 28 were the Art Museum’s long-running “capital improvements” campaign, its recruiting of SECU as a major donor through sale of the naming rights, and the city’s acquisition, through what amounted to a hostile takeover, of the Pack Place physical plant, which took place over the summer.

The art museum, in 2006, announced that it was launching a $24 million capital improvements fundraising drive.  This occurred shortly after the museum, with permission from the Pack Place board of trustees, considerably increased its space in the Pack Place building by occupying the area vacated by The Health Adventure.

Over the next several years, though it made no visible effort to obtain contributions from the general public, the museum held a series of limited fundraising events aimed mostly at attracting participation from foundations, governmental bodies and well-heeled private individuals.  It secured a total of $1.5 million in escrowed, performance grants from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, as well as a $2 million grant from the city of Asheville, which was paid for by a municipal tax increase.

Art museum executive director Pam Myers said in a 2010 interview with Verve magazine that the museum had entered “the quiet phase” of its fundraising efforts,  But in 2012, TDA informed Myers that the museum had failed to achieve its scheduled fundraising goals and was therefore in default on its TDA grants.  The museum responded by persuading TDA to extend its performance deadlines.  Three times.

In the fall of 2013 the museum asked for and obtained permission from the Pack Place board to ‘investigate the possibility” of entering into a separate lease with the city, thus removing itself from the board’s control.  It later developed that the museum had not merely investigated this possibility but was engaged in active negotiations with the city for a separate lease.

Then the city made its own move.  In January of this year city manager Gary Jackson told Pack Place it had defaulted on its agreement with the city by failing to keep its building adequately maintained.  It based this assertion on a list of physical plant updates and repairs it said had gone unattended to.  Pack Place responded that it was not in default.  Board member Barbara Field, who had been the supervising architect of the Pack Place construction, identified the list of alleged unperformed repairs as a “wish list” she had prepared for future use.

The city brushed aside this evidence and in April demanded that the Pack Place board issue a resolution authorizing the city not only to proceed with a direct lease with the art museum, but with the other Pack Place tenants – Diana Wortham Theater and the Colburn Earth Sciences Museum – as well.  The Pack Place board caved and gave Hunt his resolution, thus stripping itself of most of its governing authority.  (It later came to light that Hunt did not, as he said he did, have council’s authority to make his demand. Two weeks later Council took care of that by passing a resolution giving Hunt retroactively the power to do what he had already done.)  It was agreed that Council would take over administration of the building by August 1, and the new leases would be dated accordingly.

But, while the other tenants’ lease agreements went forward, the art museum sat on its lease document.  This generated considerable speculation as to why the museum was taking no action on something it had been pressing feverishly for over a period of months.

For many observers, the other shoe dropped at the October 28 city council meeting.  The speculators now speculated that the art museum had been waiting for a commitment from SECU, with whom it had been negotiating  “for eight or nine months” according to Mark Twisdale, CEO of the SECU Foundation.  Once SECU was on board, observers reasoned, the art museum would sign its lease, finally giving the city total control of Pack Place – in exchange for a Hunt-style after- the-fact resolution authorizing it to do what it had already done.  The planets in their courses converged and the deal was done.

The Tribune asked Mayor Esther Manheimer for her version of why the execution of the art museum’s lease had taken so long.  Manheimer, a lawyer herself, referred the Tribune’s question to City Attorney Robin Currin.  Currin forwarded the question to her assistant, Jannice Ashley, who replied,   “The delay in finalizing the leases was due to the negotiation of the operational details-mainly how the tenants would share space (i.e. notification, terms of mutual agreement) and how the space to be vacated by Colburn in June would be divided between AAM and Diana Wortham.”

The Tribune has attended all meetings of the Pack Place board during the time in question.  Most of the issues described by Ashley have not been resolved, and discussion of them has been limited.

SECU’s Twisdale, after having first given the Tribune a phone interview in which he expressed surprise and dismay at the controversy surrounding the naming rights issue, has been unavailable for further comment.

The Tribune, through the Freedom of Information Act, is seeking documents and e-mails between the art museum and the city on one hand, and the art museum and city council on the other, in order to compare timelines and content.

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