County Manager Wanda Greene’s office announced last week that the museum is due to be awarded $225,000 outright, with another $350,000 for upkeep and maintenance going to the Pack Square Cultural Partnership, which has only two members: the museum and Diana Wortham Theater. Those two organizations are now the sole occupants of what used to be Pack Place Arts, Entertainment and Cultural Center.
That $575,000 is expected to receive County Commission’s approval as part of the fiscal year 2017 budget, which takes effect July 1. It represents almost a fourth of the total of $2.5 million the county is awarding to nonprofits and other community groups this year.
The county’s prioritizing of the museum and the theater has been harshly criticized, considering that requests from groups such as Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministries, which are engaged in aiding the poor and homeless, were denied.
A further question mark among local government watchers is whether it’s appropriate for the county to be contributing that kind of money to maintain a building that is owned – or is claimed to be owned – by the city, and to an art museum that defaulted on $1.5 million in Tourist and Development Association grants but has never, they say, been held to account for doing so.
The county has traditionally contributed about $395,000 a year to help support and maintain the Pack Place facility, but a hostile takeover of the premises by the city two years ago clouded that arrangement.
In the summer of 2014 the city summarily assumed control of the Pack Place building on grounds that the Pack Place Corporation had failed to maintain it adequately. Pack Place contended that the city’s accusations were bogus and that at any rate, though the city owned the land on which the building stands, the Pack Place corporation – and ultimately the public – owned the building itself. The Pack Place board is still intact and has said it intends to sue the city over that point.
At city council’s May 17 meeting, former Asheville Mayor and City Manager Ken Michalove lambasted the city’s waiver of $90,000 in construction permit fees the art museum would ordinarily have had to pay in conjunction with its ambitious expansion program. Michalove, who served as a consultant to Pack Place but resigned in protest over what he saw as a power grab by the art museum, called the waiver “political favoritism” and “a misuse of ad valorum taxes.”
“Also,” Michalove asked council, “why have the staff and Council disguised the funding of this renovation of the Asheville Art Museum? One place [in the budget] it’s called ‘Pack Place Capital Improvements’ and in another place it’s called ‘Asheville Art Museum Renovation.’
“This was originally a two cent tax increase [to raise] $2 million dollars in the 2014 budget, claimed to be an emergency economic development project needed in 2014, for which the City will have collected and spent $6 million before that original $2 million dollars is scheduled to be spent,” Michalove said.
Referring to five-year projections for city funding of the museum, in contrast to the ten-dollar annual rent the museum pays the city, Michalove said, “Bottom line: in five years, city taxpayers will have contributed $7,090,000 to the Asheville Art Museum and the Art Museum will have paid in $50 dollars to the City for rent!
“Fact is,” Michalove concluded, “the Asheville Art Museum has never been able to pay its rent and the current Art Museum budget for building maintenance is dependent upon Buncombe County funding the Art Museum’s maintenance obligations under the Lease. What happens if the County doesn’t fund that $400,000?”
The Pack Place concept was formulated in 1988 as a partnership of nonprofit cultural entities that would operate out of a facility designed expressly for that purpose. The building itself was constructed on city-owned property and paid for with a combination of taxpayer money, grants and public sponsorships. The original partners were The Health Adventure, the art museum, the Colburn, the theater and the YMI Cultural Center, which is housed in a separate building but shared the budget and funding.
Financial troubles caused The Health Adventure to close, leaving its part of the building vacant. The art museum at once expanded into that space. When the Colburn Museum left, the art museum took over its space as well. Then the museum began pushing an ambitious expansion agenda it said was to be funded by an ongoing capital fund drive it had begun in 2006. By 2013 the museum was actively lobbying the Pack Place board to be allowed to enter into its own lease agreement with the city. But the board demurred on grounds that such action would amount to breaking up the Pack Place partnership.
Michalove, who was Mayor of Asheville in 1992, when the original Pack Place project was completed and the building was opened to the public, was retained in 2011 as a consultant by the Pack Place board but resigned in June of 2013 when, as he said in a March memo to the County Commission, “I discovered the covert actions of the AAM dealings with the City of Asheville; I have fought the issue of funding of the AAM with tax dollars ever since.”
In fact, Michalove’s dogged indictments of the Art Museum’s actions and agenda have been criticized in some quarters as the obsession of a disgruntled senior citizen with too much time on his hands. Others, including former Pack Place contributors and employees as well as critics of city and county budget priorities, see the diminutive, white-haired former mayor as a Jiminy Cricket figure, the often unheeded but tireless conscience of city and county government.
“There is no limit to the unmitigated gall of [museum Executive Director] Pam Myers and the Asheville Art Museum Board,” Michalove told county commissioners in his memo. “They could not care less about the major financial issues facing Asheville and Buncombe County. To date they have engineered the destruction of the Pack Place organization and effectively evicted the Colburn Earth Science Museum with the help of Mayor Manheimer, Gary Jackson and Marc Hunt; they managed to engineer the cancellation of the lease between the Pack Place Board and the City of Asheville, setting themselves up with a direct lease between the City and the AAM because they couldn’t get along with the Pack Place Board.”