- Montford Commons developer asks city for $9 million loan
- Reid Center progesses
- URTV gets 90-day extension while Council explores problems
When it was approved in 2007, the Montford Commons development plan earned praise for putting mixed-use development in an area of urban blight and for realizing elements of the city's Greenway Master Plan relating to that part of town. But Vincent James from Frontier Syndicate LLC told Council at its Oct. 13 meeting that project funds are coming up short due to limits on the types of infrastructure that can be paid for with Housing and Urban Development grants. The project needs financing from the city to the tune of $9 million to proceed, he told Council.
"The project will not succeed without the help of the city and the county," James said. That $9 million figure isn't written in stone, he noted, explaining that the city can help determine the project's infrastructure needs and suggest cuts.
The development is planned for the area behind the Asheville Chamber of Commerce and Isaac Dickson school and north as far as Houston Street.
Asheville's Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant did not recommend that the city agree to what amounts to a public/private partnership, but he did ask Council to decide if staff should explore the matter.
"We think this is a good project and warrants additional analysis," Durant said. A study, funded by the developer but conducted by the city, would provide firmer numbers. But he added, "If you give us the nod tonight, it will not commit you."
Council voted 6-0 to conduct the study. (Council member Robin Cape was absent, attending a conference on climate change.)
Reid-ing between the lines
So far this year, the Reid Center has come to Council four times. In January Council approved ambitious rebuild plans for the community center officially known as the W.C. Reid Center for Creative Arts. Those plans were scaled back in August when the city lost a state grant for the project. That, in turn, reignited a debate about whether to renovate or replace the existing structure, which was resolved in September when Council voted to rebuild.
The current plan calls for a three-phase construction plan for a new facility that will contain a theater — a crucial part of the new vision for the center that played a key role in fundraising — as well as a gymnasium and classrooms. But the discussion on Oct. 13, which preceded a vote to fund phase one, exposed lingering doubts and concerns weighing on Council members.
The first phase will cost approximately $2 million, Durant said, and includes construction of the theater. The city currently has $150,000 left over from $600,00 budgeted for planning on the project. Combining that money with $732,000 in pledges from private donors still leaves the project only about half way there. Durant said the gap can be filled by taking on a $1.1 million loan. The city's burden, he said, would amount to $10,000 in debt service annually.
The problem, said Mayor Terry Bellamy, was that Council's approval of phase one of the project did not seal the deal for the entire three-phase build-out. That, she said, will leave it vulnerable to the whims of future councils and unforeseeable changes in funding.
Although the project was scaled back in August when the city backed out of a grant process, some Council members worried that the cost of the all three phases seemed headed back to the original estimate of $8 million.
"We started with $8 million and it looks like we have crept right back up to it," said Council member Bill Russell.
Jane Matthews, whose architecture firm Matthews Architecture is leading the design process, denied that figure was on the table, noting she was only seeking approval for the $2 million needed for phase one. The cost of the entire build out, she said, has not been finalized.
But with phases one and two tagged at $5.3 million and with a pool included in phase three, Mumpower argued that $8 million seems a reasonable estimate. Moving forward without that money accounted for, he said, is a risky prospect.
"We're going down a very expensive dead end," he said. "I think we are making a mistake to walk away from the existing facility."
Bellamy, who in past discussions strongly urged renovating the existing facility, now said Council was past that point. She suggested looking into what price the city could get for the existing building to offset new construction costs. City Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Director Roderick Simmons said he was planning to gather community input regarding the fate of the building, but Bellamy said that selling it could help secure future phases. (The new facility will be located on another part of the property from the existing building so that the old gymnasium can remain open during construction.)
The Mayor also asked that an amendment be made to the motion directing city staff to present quarterly updates on funding opportunities for phases two and three.
Vice Mayor Jan Davis urged pushing forward, saying, "We owe a debt to this community." Asheville resident Sophie Dixon supported that sentiment.
"We've got to do something," Dixon said. "We talk these things to death. Someone has to stand up for these children. We've got to take hold of this and complete it."
The motion to approve the master plan and take on the $1.1 million in financing passed 4-2 with Russell and Mumpower voting no.
Treading lightly on URTV
The public-access channel URTV operates with very little governmental oversight but relies on contracts with Asheville and Buncombe County to receive funds from Charter cable bills in the county.
The city contract is up in November, but recent friction within the organization has caused Council and the Boards and Commissions Committee to approach a new contract warily.
Presenting a plan that came out of a Boards and Commissions Committee meeting earlier that day, City Attorney Bob Oast suggested that Council extend the current contract for 90 days while the committee examines URTV's operations.
"We know there are some issues that need to be addressed," Oast said. Those include open-meeting and notification polices, as well as procedures for dismissing members from the the station's board.
"We've received a lot of comment from URTV that it has become factionalized. And there are definitely some transparency issues," Davis said. "They are having a big problem managing themselves."
Davis added that a recent letter from the station's attorney in response to an earlier query by Council was "not really a response."
By design, city government has no oversight of the channel, but it does appoint two members to the URTV board and signs the contract that appropriates the station's funding, which comes from local cable bills. Since July, when the URTV squabble first landed in front of Council as that body sought to appoint a new URTV board member (a task that might finally be accomplished on Oct. 27), some Council members have noted that the only leverage the city has over the station is to decline to renew its contract. URTV gets about $45,000 a year though the agreement.
The city's contract with Charter expires next year, which is another reason to give the contract a good look, Davis told Xpress.
The 90-day extension means that URTV will get operating funds to continue for the upcoming quarter. "I think we really want URTV to be a success," Davis said at the meeting. "This is our sincere way of saying we are behind URTV."