Pack Place board member accuses city of “blackmail”
By Roger McCredie-Asheville architect and former city council member Barbara Field angrily accused city administrators last week of distorting a list of suggested capital improvements she prepared for Pack Place and using it as “blackmail” against the arts and educational complex.
Field was the project manager for the building of Pack Place and presently serves on the building committee of Pack Place, Inc., which administers the facility. She made her remarks during what was billed as an “unstructured, informal” joint meeting of the Pack Place board and key city administrators. The meeting was called after City Manager Gary Jackson sent a letter to Pack Place, Inc. in late January, declaring it to be in default of its agreement with the city and demanding payment of almost $800,000 for needed repairs to the site.
Pack Place, Inc., owns the Pack Place building, whose three tenants – Diana Wortham Theatre, Colburn Earth Sciences Museum and the Asheville Art Museum — lease their space for $10 a year from the corporation, which is responsible for the building’s upkeep.
But the City of Asheville owns the land the building stands on. Under the agreement that has been in place since Pack Place was founded, if Pack Place, Inc., should ever contemplate dissolving, the city may purchase the building from the corporation at a fair price. However, if Pack Place, Inc., should fail to maintain the facility properly, the city can take it over outright, without having to pay anybody, and offer the tenants the option of either vacating or entering into direct lease agreements with the city.
Jackson’s demand letter was greeted with anger and disbelief by Colburn Museum and the theatre, as well as by private citizens, some of them former city officials and Pack Place board members themselves. They see the move as part of an elaborate and heavy-handed power play by the city, designed to obliterate Pack Place, Inc. by creating a bogus default, The city, they say, would then install itself as sole owner, and, in effect, hand control of the physical plant over to its “pet tenant,” the art museum, which has been pushing for a direct lease arrangement with the city for some time.
But at the outset of Wednesday’s meeting, which she said should more appropriately be termed “a dialogue,” Mayor Esther Manheimer, as good cop, abruptly switched gears. Jackson’s letter, she seemed to indicate, was essentially an attention-getting device designed to bring parties to the table to discuss the city’s assessment that Pack Place had become “dysfunctional.” The city, she said, is “flexible” on the lease matter; that it is perfectly willing to discuss lease terms providing certain criteria are included. Councilman Marc Hunt, as bad cop, emphasized that those points, mostly involving certain of the repairs referenced in Jackson’s letter, were “non-negotiable.”
Both Vickie Ballard, Executive Director of the Colburn Museum and John Ellis, who oversees Diana Wortham, objected that they were not being allowed sufficient time to prepare counterproposals, noting that their leases expire on May 31 and the city was demanding that any such documents be submitted by April 30. Ellis said the tenants – except for the art museum – have not even seen drafts of the city’s proposed leases. “How can we negotiate a lease we have never seen?” he asked.
Ballard said she was taken aback by the city’s apparent change of position after having sent the demand letter in the first place. “It was my understanding that this was what was happening,” she said.
Both Ellis and Ballard asked city officials for extensions of time to review the proposed leases and submit proposals of their own.
“The [art] museum can’t wait that long,” Lin Andrews, a member of the art museum board, said after a whispered conference with art museum executive director Pam Myers. The art museum is already prepared to execute its own direct lease with the city.
That was when Barbara Field stood up and let the City of Asheville have it.
Field began by pointing out that attached to Jackson’s demand letter, as a purported list of maintenance items the city accused Pack Place of failing to address – thereby bringing on the default — was “a document that I authored and that I presented. It belongs to me. It is part of a drawing that is copyrighted. It does not belong to the city. The list is not a list of deferred maintenance. It is a wish list of things we would like [to see done].”
Field said her list was divided into three sections. “The first – the most critical one – was the roof. We have already handled that.” Other items dealt with energy conservation measures and such niceties as automatically-timed lighting.
“You have basically stolen that [list] from me and attached it to a document you are using to blackmail Pack Place,” Field, declared, glaring across the table at Hunt, Manheimer and Jackson. I’m really, really angry. Make your own damn list,” she said.
Manheimer and Hunt consulted their notes. Jackson seemed to find something interesting going on outside the window.
“I cannot see how you can find Pack Place in default for deferred maintenance, which is what you’re saying,” Field added. “Find another excuse to put us in default. That [the demand letter] doesn’t count and doesn’t matter and is complete fantasy on the part of City Council.”
Field added that the Pack Place building was designed as a single use building with its facilities to be integrated among all its tenants, and not to house three separate entities. Reconfiguring the structure three separate ways, “is going to cost a lot of money,” she said.
“There does not appear to be a consensus at this table about what would be the best working structure going forward,” Manheimer said, “We have put a proposal out there. It is flexible. It is negotiable. If [Colburn and Diana Wortham, but not the art museum] want to continue to sublet through Pack Place, that’s not the end of the world … we want to honor everything that’s worked well and identify everything that hasn’t worked well and fix it.”
“We have eleven people working at Pack Place whose jobs are on the line,” said atty. Edward Hay, chairman of Pack Place, Inc. “I’m sure they would like to know whether they’re going to have a job June 1.” Hay also said Pack Place has already submitted its annual funding request to the new Cultural and Recreation Authority “based on the status quo” and will need time to amend its figures based on what the city actually intends to do about Pack Place.
Manheimer concluded by saying she welcomes counterproposals from Colburn and Diana Wortham. She did not indicate when proposed leases would be available for review. No deadline extensions would be forthcoming.
“We [Colburn and Diana Wortham] have become second class citizens,” Ballard said after the meeting. Colburn has never done much in the way of aggressive advertising; we’ve just quietly gone about our business of giving people, particularly school kids, an entertaining, non-classroom source of science education. I grew up poor on a working farm where we valued education highly and I have been really thrilled by the level of commitment at Colburn to impart knowledge in an interactive way.”
Ballard said she now “lives in fear” that forcing Colburn to become a separate entity with the city as its landlord will cause Buncombe County, which funds Pack Place’s utilities, to decide to pull its financial support. “If that happens, we’ll go out of business, pure and simple,” she said. “We couldn’t pay those bills on our own. We don’t make enough money.”
And a county official who spoke to the Tribune under strict anonymity said, “I can tell you right now that if Pack Place gets divided up like that, the county isn’t going to pay the city’s bills.”