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Pack Place takeover, Art Museum’s “SECU Plaza” project scrutinized

SECU Plaza RS

In a certified letter to Asheville City Clerk Maggie Burleson, who is the city’s official custodian of records, the Tribune requested copies of “any and all direct correspondence by and between the city and the SECU Foundation having to do with the naming rights transaction” which took place in October, as well as material relating to Vice Mayor Mark Hunt’s initial move to seize the Pack Place physical plant on behalf of the city, which occurred in April, 2013.

At the same time. The Tribune also sent a certified letter to SECU Foundation Executive Director Mark Twisdale asking for copies of documents and correspondence between the foundation and the Asheville Art Museum on one hand and the city on the other, leading up to city council’s approval of the museum’s proposal to allow SECU to rename the forecourt of the Pack Place Building “SECU Plaza” in exchange for a $1.5 million contribution to the museum’s capital campaign.

The renaming issue is the latest controversy to emerge from the larger issue of the Pack Place takeover, a story which the Tribune has followed step-by-step for more than two years, but which has received only sketchy attention from most local media outlets. The seeds of the Pack Place breakup were sown late in 2012, when the art museum obtained permission from the Pack Place board to examine the possibility of a separate and direct lease agreement with the city. (The city owned the land on which the Pack Place building sits, but the building itself was financed in 1992 through public contributions and foundation grants; therefore the Pack Place corporation functioned as landlord of the three building tenants: the art museum, Diana Wortham Theater and the Colburn Earth Sciences Museum.)

It subsequently came to light that the art museum was actively engaged in pursuing a direct lease with the city – a move which, though individual members expressed misgivings, the Pack Place board made no move to challenge. The art museum said such an arrangement would facilitate the capital fund drive it has allegedly been conducting since 2006.

The city plays a wild card

Pack Place’s own agreement with the city provided that, should the city ever wish to acquire the Pack Place building, it would have to pay the Pack Place corporation fair market value for it; however, there was one loophole: the city could use eminent domain to seize the property if the Pack Place board was ever found to be grossly negligent in maintaining the building.

On January 29, 2014, City Manager Gary Jackson informed the Pack Place board that it had failed to make needed repairs amounting to more than $800,000 and was therefore in default on its lease and should prepare to surrender the building to the city. Meanwhile the art museum revealed plans to use its capital funding to take over, remodel and enlarge the building’s interior, in effect elbowing aside the other two tenants.

The list of tasks declared by the city as defaulted repairs was later identified by board member Barbara Field, who had been the supervising architect for Pack Place, as only a “wish list” of suggested improvements that could be made as finances permitted. Fields openly accused the city of “stealing” this list, distorting it and using it to “blackmail” Pack Place. The Pack Place board made noises about a lawsuit against the city, but took no action.

Then, in April, Hunt and Jackson told a Pack Place board meeting that they had been empowered, at a closed session of city council the night before, to demand that the board, then and there, pass a resolution handing over the administration of Pack Place to the city, thus making the city the new landlord and gutting the Pack Place board of its authority. When asked to produce a document authorizing him to make such a demand, Hunt said “It was verbal.” The Pack Place board eventually acquiesced without a fight, thus making itself a straw-man corporation. Since that time, Hunt’s raid has gone unchallenged and events have proceeded as though the city has, and always had, ultimate title to Pack Place.

Meanwhile, two city employees, requesting anonymity, told the Tribune that although there had been a closed council meeting on the night Hunt mentioned, the subject of Pack Place had not been raised. At the next city council meeting a Tribune reporter asked council members directly whether this was the case. Mayor Esther Manheimer declined to answer, citing the closed meeting confidentiality protection. Council no longer allows questions to be asked of council during public comment time.

In asking for the minutes of that meeting in its certified letter, the Tribune said, “Our position is that since Vice Mayor Mark Hunt made repeated references to events he said transpired during this meeting during a meeting of the Pack Place Board the next day, he forfeited the confidentiality that would normally apply to a closed meeting.”

Enter SECU

Throughout the summer the art museum, which had been pushing since 2012 for a direct lease with the city, mysteriously sat on its lease once it was drawn. The drop-dead date of October 14 passed with the art museum’s lease still unsigned. Then, on October 21, museum Executive Director Pam Myers informed Mayor Esther Manheimer that the museum had received an offer from the SECU foundation to purchase “naming rights” to the forecourt of the Pack Place property. City Council would have to approve such an arrangement; moreover the parcel in question falls within the boundaries of the plat of land deeded to the city by George Willis Pack more than a century ago for use in perpetuity as a public park.

Myers’ letter to Manheimer, in which she stressed that the art museum urgently needed the renaming proceeds for its capital fund campaign, is among the materials the Tribune has requested from the city.

At its October 28 meeting council approved the renaming deal after the fact, despite some internal grumbling and vehement objections from members of the public and the Asheville Downtown Association, which is charged with reviewing downtown projects and said it had been bypassed in the naming rights process.

Hours before the council vote, the art museum turned in its completed lease agreement.

On November 7 The Tribune contacted Mark Twisdale, Executive Director of the SECU foundation, who confirmed that SECU had in fact been in negotiations with the art museum about the naming rights for several months and had received assurances that the art museum’s fundraising efforts, including the proposed renaming, had broad-based public support. Twisdale seemed taken aback to learn that his foundation might be buying into what was already a highly charged controversy and indicated that further meetings with art museum officials might be necessary. He has not replied to requests from the Tribune for further comment.

The Tribune’s certified letter to Twisdale seeks access to several documents including copies of the art museum’s original grant application, minutes or notes from SECU’s meetings with the art museum and a copy of the terms and conditions of the renaming agreement.

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