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“What SECU Plaza?”


By Roger McCredie- It was bought, ballyhooed and belatedly approved; suddenly nobody’s talking.

From the Asheville Citizen-Times, October 27, 2014:

Asheville Art Museum officials have proposed selling naming rights to the plaza in front of their South Pack Place building to the State Employees Credit Union. The plaza is part of the city’s Pack Square Park and any changes must be approved by City Council.”

From the Asheville Tribune, November 4, 2014:

The Brooklyn Bridge.  Beachfront property in Florida.  All the corny old metaphors for selling something one doesn’t own surfaced last week when it was announced that State Employees Credit Union intends to donate $1,500,000 to the Asheville Art Museum, in exchange for the right to name the forecourt in front of Pack Place “SECU Plaza.”

Before, in between and immediately following the appearance of those two news items there occurred a flurry of phone calls and e-mails, an acrimonious city council meeting and a lively public outcry which was quickly drowned out by the hoopla of midterm elections and the cacophony of the holiday season.

And now, as the Tribune resumes its peeling of the layers of this legalistic onion, there is silence.  Lots of silence.  As though the Asheville Art Museum, the City of Asheville and the SECU Foundation – each for its own reasons – were trying their best not to call attention to this story, in  marked contrast to the enthusiastic manner of its introduction to the public.

That’s how things are.  Here’s how things got to be the way they are:

When the city did its hostile takeover of Pack Place, it negotiated new leases with the Pack Place tenants which were to be executed within 60 days of August 14.  The art museum, which had been pushing since 2012 for just such an arrangement, mysteriously sat on its lease.  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 at the corner of College Street and Biltmore Avenue.  City Council would have to approve such an arrangement; moreover the parcel in question falls within the boundaries of the plat of landed deeded to the city by George Willis Pack more than a century ago for use in perpetuity as a public park.

Myers stressed to Manheimer that the art museum desperately needed to take advantage of SECU’s offer in order to help fund its capital campaign, which had begun in 2006, and that SECU was relying on a positive vote from Council.  Normally such a request would be brought to council prior to any dealings with a third party, but Myers succeeded in getting the matter scheduled for a vote at the October 28 council meeting.  At that point the art museum’s lease had still not been signed and there was speculation that it was being used as a bargaining chip between the museum and SECU on one hand and city council on the other.  The art museum, apparently acting on the premise that it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission, waited until after it had already sold the naming rights idea 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, which grew more acerbic when it was revealed that the art museum had finally signed its lease that very day, literally hours before the council meeting.

During public comment at the meeting, Adrian Vassalo, Chairman of the Asheville Downtown Commission, vigorously objected to that body’s not being consulted or even informed of the negotiations with SECU. He also complained that the city’s own $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 are going further down a path of resentment and divisiveness that started in 2012 with that contribution to the museum.”

Community activist Leslie Anderson, who played a major role in conceptualizing Pack Place, told council members, “The Asheville Art Museum demonstrated a lack of appreciation for [Pack Square’s] history. ” 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.

And the art museum’s most dogged Nemesis, former mayor Ken Michalove,  charged, ““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.”

Among council members, Gwen Wisler was the most outspokenly critical of the way the situation had been handled.  “I feel we are … 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.”

Even Hunt, who has acted as council’s head cheerleader in art museum matters, admitted,  “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.”

Yet council unanimously approved the after-the-fact proposal.

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.

And at a meeting of the vestigial Pack Place board on November 12, trustee-at-large Carol Peterson attempted to engage Myers on the naming rights issue.  “I’ve read everything everybody’s written about it, I know [city] council didn’t have a comfort level with it but they went through with it anyway … people know I’m on this board and several people have been asking me about it, and I would like to have a layman’s explanation of how that could happen.”

“I’m sure we’d be happy to discuss this with you, but I’m not sure this is the appropriate venue,” Myers replied.

That was when the silence descended over the battlefield.

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 were ever received.

The Tribune also e-mailed Twisdale on January 29, asking for an update on the renaming project.  No response had been received by press time.

A search of both the art museum’s and the SECU Foundation’s websites reveals no mention at all of the proposed renaming.

Next:  A look at legalities, and, property lines, and conversations with the heirs of George Willis Pack.

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