After months of debate, Asheville City Council voted unanimously July 22 to approve a controversial new leasing arrangement for Pack Place and its tenants at 2 S. Pack Square: Asheville Art Museum, Diana Wortham Theatre and Colburn Earth Science Museum.
The city owns the building, which was instrumental in the revitalization of downtown when it opened 22 years ago. Since then, it has been managed by a nonprofit – Pack Place Education, Arts and Science Center. But on July 22 council members chose to take away the nonprofit’s management authority and offer leases directly to the organizations that call the building home.
Officials from the art museum pushed for the changes, saying it would help them complete long-term expansion plans. The 30-year lease calls for the museum to pay $147,000 over the course of five years for use of the property. After that period, the payment structure will be re-evaluated. And after three decades, the museum will have two renewal options of 10 years each.
However, the city will waive payments for three years as the museum constructs long-planned renovations.
Former Mayor Ken Michalove criticized the deal, asserting during a public hearing that the move could make the city vulnerable to a law suit “Asheville Art Museum is a poor excuse for a nonprofit. … The real reason the art museum wants a direct lease is to get out of the control and building management of the Pack Place board.”
Former Mayor Lou Bissette, now an attorney for the art museum, rebutted the charge. “I really think the art museum board deserves credit, not harassment here,” he said. “I think this is a good deal for the city. I think this is a good deal for the art museum and Diana Wortham Theater. … Things change and institutions change.”
The art museum has raised $15 million towards its goal of $19 million to fund major renovations at the facility, said Bissette.
Marc Rudow, an attorney representing Diana Wortham Theatre, said his organization supported the change. The theater’s 30-year lease can also be renewed two times for 10 years each. Starting July 1, 2015, the theater will pay $105,000 in increments over the next five years.
The art museum and the theater will divide up space left by the Colburn Earth Science Museum, which is vacating the building next year. Amid the uncertainty over Pack Place, the science museum announced earlier this year that it was looking for a different site, which is yet to be determined. In the meantime, the new lease gives it until June 7, 2015, to operate at the existing facility at a cost of $1,450 per month starting Jan. 1.
Vice Mayor Marc Hunt has previously been critical of the Pack Place nonprofit’s stewardship of the building. He was instrumental in negotiating the new arrangement and praised it.
“The city is the ultimate steward of Pack Place,” he said. “We’ve taken that duty very seriously for many months.” He added: “The success of the tenants operating at Pack place is paramount. … On balance it achieves that very well.”
It’s unclear how Buncombe County will respond to the new arrangement. Previously, the county paid much of the facility’s maintenance and operating costs by providing some funding to the Pack Place nonprofit and some funding directly to utility companies.
“The city appreciates very much the partnership of the county,” said Hunt. “We’re eager to work in the future to work similarly … to ensure the success of the building.”
However, the next day, Buncombe County Board Chair David Gantt told Xpress he thought the situation was “bad.”
The Board of Commissioners allocated $210,076 in this year’s budget for the Pack Place nonprofit to help it manage the property and an additional $180,000 to pay for the building’s utilities.
The city’s new move “does give us some heartburn,” says Gantt. “Now if we give the [nonprofits] money, they’ll just have to turn around and give it to the city.”
He reports that the commission will consider its options in coming months.
The new leases must be posted publicly for 10 days before becoming final.
In other business:
• Council heard an update from Asheville Police Chief William Anderson on the law enforcement agency’s new operating plan. He emphasized the importance of improving officer retention, reducing response times and improving community outreach efforts.
• Council revised its development policy to allow gated roads leading to single-home lots for security purposes. New gated communities are still banned within city limits.
• Cancelled a public hearing on a request to operate a dog therapy facility at the corner of Charlotte Street and Sunset Parkway in North Asheville. The request was withdrawn from the property owner after neighbors raised concerns.
For Council’s full “action agenda,” click here.