Asheville City Council

  • City Hall has mold problem
  • Reid Center construction approved
  • Council jettisons regular work sessions

The W.C. Reid Center for Creative Arts will get some long-awaited upgrades, though the slumping economy means the project will have to be significantly scaled back, at least for now.

Game on: The gymnasium at the W.C. Reid Center will remain open during construction of a new community arts center there. Photo by Jonathan Welch.

City Council has been exploring plans for upgrading the 80-year-old facility—including adding an auditorium and a gymnasium—since 2006. The original idea was to pay for the project with a mix of city moneys, private donations and grants, but the initial $8 million price tag was eventually rejected as unrealistic. Revisions trimmed the cost to $4 million, but in the present economic climate, even that isn’t feasible, Parks and Recreation Director Roderick Simmons told Council members during their Jan. 13 meeting, the first one of the new year.

The current proposal’s $2 million price tag reflects the money the city already has in hand: about $1.5 million in grant funds plus $500,000 budgeted two years ago. The planned 7,500-square-foot cultural arts center, to be built on what is now a baseball field, would house an auditorium, a stage and multipurpose rooms.

But it’s crucial to get the project under way before the grant money expires, Simmons stressed. And though the current plan does not include a gym (which would push the project over budget), he said the structure would be designed so that it could be expanded later. Meanwhile, thanks to the alternative building site, the existing gym could remain in use during construction—a key factor in maintaining the center’s existing programs.

“My biggest concern is displacing those programs,” Simmons emphasized. “If we stop those programs, we’re going to lose people, and it is hard to get them back.”

And despite the gymnasium’s rundown condition, it’s still usable, he noted. “We’ve done some patching up. Structurally, it’s OK to be in that building—it’s just not functional as the community space we want.”

The Reid Center, on Livingston Street in south-central Asheville, serves a neighborhood plagued by crime and drug activity. Early in 2007, the city added security guards to the center’s staff, and Council member Carl Mumpower and Mayor Terry Bellamy have repeatedly traded barbs over how to address those problems.

This day proved no different, as Mumpower once again raised objections, saying the money would be better spent on fighting drug activity in the area.

Bellamy, however, disagreed, noting, “I want to point out the fact that the community got together to raise this money. … I think that says a lot.”

Council member Robin Cape concurred, saying, “The community and you have done a great job working on this.”

“This project started 24 months ago,” said Simmons. “We’re just trying to get to a win/win situation.”

The construction plan was approved 6-1, with Mumpower opposed.

Other youth news

UNCA Chancellor Anne Ponder was on hand to accept a $25,000 check from AT&T to fund the development of a certification program for math tutors.

Ponder said the program is expected to reduce local dropout rates, because research shows that students who make it through algebra I and II are less likely to drop out of school.

“This is a shining example of your university taking on its responsibility to the community,” Ponder declared.

On another front, the John B. Lewis Soccer Complex on Azalea Road in east Asheville is set to get a lighting system funded by the Asheville Buncombe Youth Soccer Association. The lights will enable the group to nearly double the amount of use the fields can get. City Council unanimously accepted the donation, valued at $510,000 including installation costs.

The golden moldies

What evil lurks within the walls of City Hall? Mold, apparently, and Council discussed a $119,013 contract with The Building Group, a local business that specializes in cleaning up hazardous materials, to remove the mold from the aged structure’s ventilation system. According to a staff report, the city began looking into the problem last year.

Outside contractors have analyzed the mold and concluded that it was in the system but not airborne, reported Betty Coulter, the city’s risk manager. The air inside City Hall, she maintained, is “no worse than outside the building.” But she added, “If the spores break loose, we may have an issue.”

The system, she said, is long overdue for a cleaning, allowing mold to build up there. Meanwhile, at least one city staffer has filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, noted Coulter, and five informal complaints have been lodged internally.

Public buildings such as City Hall aren’t subject to OSHA’s building-safety code, she explained, so the current complaint would not trigger any action by the agency. But if people start getting sick, she said, it could result in fines from OSHA’s public-health division. The cleanup would involve only the lower six floors of City Hall. The seventh and eighth floors, she said, have more extensive contamination due to water leaks, making that a more intensive project.

“Mold is something to be concerned about,” conceded Council member Bill Russell, citing the problems in Texas with mold-related illnesses. “It seems to me like this is something we have to do for our employees.”

And even the cost, noted Cape, could be a bargain compared to the long-term costs if people started getting sick. She added that it seems inconsistent to fight for outdoor air quality while ignoring conditions indoors. “To say, ‘Go to work but don’t breathe deep while you’re in City Hall’ would be funny.”

Council member Brownie Newman, meanwhile, said he’d like to know about the mold levels in other city-owned buildings to see if City Hall’s numbers are out of line.

Most newer buildings, said Coulter, are on a regular cleaning schedule, unlike City Hall. “This building will take quite a bit of work to get it where we won’t have as many complaints,” she said.

Both the agreement with the contractor and the resulting budget resolution were approved on 6-1 votes, with Mumpower opposed.

Let’s not meet again

As part of its consent agenda, Council members unanimously supported eliminating the work sessions they’ve been holding the third Tuesday of every month. That leaves only the two formal meetings per month, on the second and fourth Tuesdays. Before the meeting, Russell told Xpress that he liked the change because it would eliminate the conflict with the Buncombe County Board Of Commissioners, which meets the first and third Tuesdays of the month. And during the recent City Council retreat, Mayor Bellamy noted that the cut saves staff hours for employees required to attend the work sessions.

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