Buncombe Commissioners

  • Despite difficulties, Pack Square renovations on track, conservancy officials say
  • County manager recommends delaying decision on new office facility
  • Commissioners change meeting place

The Buncombe County commissioners probably wished they’d had some luck o’ the Irish on March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day) as they heard a report from the Pack Square Conservancy indicating that the nonprofit is launching a fundraising drive to raise millions of dollars still needed to complete the work on the park. The renovations have taken longer than expected, and the cost has ballooned from an estimated $6 million to more than $20 million.

The commissioners unanimously approved the conservancy’s new budget estimates but asked the officials to update them again in late May—when the first segment of the new park is expected to open. Commissioner Holly Jones was particularly skeptical about the group’s prospects for raising the needed funds in a tight economy.

The board might also have wished for a stiff drink after County Manager Wanda Greene revealed that due to the uncertain state of the economy, she believes the commissioners should hold off until the budget for the next fiscal year (which begins July 1) has been approved before revisiting the issue of consolidating many county offices under one roof. Both the county’s courts and human services face severe space shortages, but Greene said the commissioners would have a better handle on the county’s financial situation after completing next year’s budget.

Pack Place confidential

To anyone who’s spent time in downtown Asheville over the past few years, the construction in Pack Square has become a familiar sight. The project has also attracted its share of critics concerned about the continuing delays and skyrocketing costs.

On March 17, officials of the Pack Square Conservancy (the nonprofit charged with overseeing the ambitious project) came before the board to address those concerns and explain their plans for the future.

“We’re almost at the gate in opening the Pack Square portion of the park, which will be ready in early May,” Gary Giniat, the conservancy’s new executive director, told the board. Roger McGuire Green, adjacent to City Hall and the county courthouse, is expected to be ready in late summer.

“Midpark (the part between Market Street and Spruce Street) will be the third part to be completed,” noted Giniat. This section, including the park’s centerpiece pavilion—whose size has increased from the original design—will be delayed until additional money can be raised.

The board unanimously approved that and other design changes, such as reducing the size of the fountain and the WNC Veterans Memorial.

The park’s total cost is now pegged at more than $20.2 million, according to Charles Russell, the group’s treasurer. The conservancy, he added, has $1.9 million in the bank and $5.8 million definitely pledged. To date, the nonprofit has spent $8 million on the project. The county has contributed $2 million.

That leaves the conservancy about $4.5 million short, and it’s beginning a fundraising blitz to close the gap.

“The public part will be kicked off right away, which will provide some pledges, and there are some major corporate donors out there that will provide some pledges,” noted Russell. “We feel confident we’ll be able to get this money to complete the park. We’ve also made a request to a consortium of local banks for a line of credit—maximum $2 million. Our resources are good, and they’ve flowed well.”

Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt said he respects the work the conservancy is doing and is heartened to hear that parts of the park will be completed over the next few months.

But he also called on the officials to account for how they’ve gotten to the current situation. “There’s a public perception that the budget went up so much, that the costs just mushroomed, and that it’s not a viable project,” noted Gantt. “Obviously if you’ve got 15 out of 20, it’s a viable project, but tell us your reaction to that.”

Donna Clark, the conservancy’s communications director, said that developments in the construction industry that were beyond the nonprofit’s control were responsible for much of the cost increase.

“Around the time of [Hurricane Katrina], you saw construction costs go through the roof,” she explained. “You also had a huge amount of construction going on in China for the Olympics. High-grade steel went up 50 percent; stainless steel doubled. Asphalt, concrete saw similar cost increases. It’s like last summer, when gas was up to $4 a gallon here: You don’t like it, you understand why it’s going on, but you can’t do much about it. We’d made the commitment to build the park, and we had to roll with it. But we had an astronomical increase in prices over three years.”

In addition, noted Guy Clerici, the conservancy’s new board chair, “There were a lot of things under the ground we weren’t aware of: This is an old city, and that became a larger factor than we anticipated.”

Commissioner Carol Peterson urged the organization to be more forthcoming, saying, “These could have been addressed if we’d seen you sooner. I’m thrilled that something’s going to open in May; I’m thrilled to hear something is going to open this summer. So much of what the community wants to know could have been waylaid if we’d had this information sooner. Get out any time you can and talk to the public. Thank you for what you’re doing, but let’s have more conversation.”

Jones, however, remained doubtful about the group’s fundraising ability. “I’m just not feeling the love here in terms of people giving the money,” she said. “I’m poring over this budget; I think your revenue challenges are mighty here. There has to be a way the expenses are trimmed. Help me feel that you can get here without going in a big pot of debt.”

She asked if the board could deduct two contingency items totaling almost $2 million from the budget, since it appeared that no money had been spent on them yet.

But the conservancy officials balked at that impromptu budget restructuring. “It’s conservative to keep those items on the books,” asserted Clerici. “We are spending some money on them, and there are pledges tied in there.”

He added that the group would have a clearer idea of some potential savings in May and could perhaps make some cuts then. Clerici also cited some substantial pending funding requests: $1 million from the Tourism Development Authority and $3.5 million in federal stimulus money.

“We’re very confident that we’ll have what we need to do this,” said Giniat. “I’m looking for places to trim. I don’t deny this is a tough time.”

Russell, too, defended those budget items, saying, “It may be that we can make some cuts; we hope there’s some room. But we need to have those contingencies in there.”

In the end, the commissioners unanimously approved the revised budget.

No consolidation yet

At their January retreat, the commissioners asked Greene to explore the possibility of consolidating all or most county facilities in a single building; such a move could cost anywhere from $30 million to $60 million.

County staff, she said, have investigated various options, but she recommended delaying any decision—or even looking at final recommendations—until the county decides on its final budget next month.

“This is what concerns me,” Greene explained, displaying figures showing the stock market’s precipitous decline over the past few months. “Our two biggest areas of overcrowding are in the courts and in human services. We put a $35 million human-services building on Coxe Avenue on hold after we got bids. Any expansion of the courthouse space would require a tower with more exits and modern elevators. That would cost $25 million.”

Given all the economic factors, she recommended holding off.

“We are hard at work; we’re doing our due diligence on possible properties that meet our criteria,” noted Greene. “We’re all better off if we see what everyone’s going to do before we adopt a solution to our facility challenges. The state’s in very dire straits, and we’re going to be a part of the cuts needed to solve that. We’ll bring you our recommendations after the budget process.”

Commissioner K. Ray Bailey applauded Greene’s conclusions, saying, “I think the conservative in me is really showing. No one really knows where we’re going to be three months or six months from now. I, for one, want to go very slowly in this process.”

Closing time

The board also unanimously approved moving their offices and meeting place—after 81 years in the county courthouse—down the road to 30 Valley St., due to the court system’s space problems.

“There’s a recognition we’re required by law to provide adequate court space,” noted Gantt, adding, “Folks, you can’t take on a judge—they’ve got a thing called a court order.”

“Fortunately, it didn’t come to that, and we worked out a way to move,” added Vice Chair (and longtime Commissioner) Bill Stanley. “I’ve enjoyed my 20 years here. I’m sad to move, it’s a sad day, but I look forward to my new quarters.”

The board’s meeting time—4:30 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of every month—will remain the same.

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