Asheville City Council: Reid’s reprieve

  • Support for local contractors state regulated
  • Homeless emerge in Strategic Operating Plan update
  • Early voting locations get funded
  • Council appointees get new bylaws

The Reid Center rebuild is still on — despite news that a grant representing a quarter of the $2 million that had already been raised is no longer available. At its Sept. 8 meeting, Asheville City Council confirmed its intention to see a new facility built on the center's property. Its resolution calls for city staff and Asheville-based Matthews Architecture to move forward with phase one, a 7,700-square-foot facility that includes classrooms and theater space. It also instructs city staff to look for ways to raise additional needed funds.

Pressing forward: Asheville City Council is sticking to its plan for a new building at the Reid Center. Photo by Jonathan Welch

But Council did not arrive at that decision quickly or easily. Two weeks earlier, Parks and Recreation Director Roderick Simmons had advised Council to pull out of a North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grant process, noting that the project was not far enough along to qualify for that $500,000 in funding, and that the city had been refused an extension. Bowing out, Simmons had said, would be looked on more favorably than letting allocated grant funds expire unused.

Improvements to the W.C. Reid Center for Creative Arts have been on the city's radar for at least a decade, but planning and fundraising didn't begin in earnest until about five years ago. Discussions centered on renovating the former elementary school up until 2008, when it was determined that creating desired theater space would be less expensive with a new structure than with a rebuild.

But ever since she heard news of the lost funding, Mayor Terry Bellamy has been pushing for a return to renovations. At the recent Council meeting she argued that quick action is needed to avoid dragging out the process out any further. The answer, she believes, lies in reworking the larger existing structure.

At 37,500 square feet, the existing building is nearly five times the size of the proposed structure, but apart from the support of Council member Carl Mumpower, who drafted his own report favoring a renovation of the current building, she found no other Council or staff members who saw things her way.

"This is 7,700 square feet, but it's 7,700 square feet designed to do what is needed there," said Council member Brownie Newman. Simmons supported that thought, saying the existing building, a former school, is broken up into classrooms unsuited for the intended uses of the center. And the cost of renovation, estimated at $5.4 million, would exceed replacement, Simmons said.

He reminded Council that major private and nonprofit funders of the project were sold on the project largely on the new theater and modern classroom space. Of those benefactors, four have expressed their support for a new space, but one of those, the Janirve Foundation, is working with a six-to-nine-month deadline. Two other funding sources, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Eckerd Family Foundation, are seeking more information on the plan.

But the price of renovating isn't the only figure that has created concern. Matthews Architects is still in the master-plan design phase of the project, and the project's final cost has yet to be determined. The city currently has approximately $1.5 million to work with after losing the $500,000 grant, but on Sept. 8 Council learned that phase one could actually cost as much as $2.5 million. That figure — $500,000 more than earlier estimates — reflects the need to bring the site up to city code and to conform to LEED standards, a requirement for all city buildings that was set in place by Council in 2007.

"This is quite a bit more money than we were talking about when we withdrew from the grant," said Vice Mayor Jan Davis.

Matthews Architecture head Jane Matthews said the $2.5 million had been intentionally inflated and does not reflect current market conditions. "We're a little premature in the sense of coming to Council with what it's going to cost," she said.

But everyone agreed on the need to move forward somehow on the Reid Center. Council member Robin Cape, who warned Council two weeks earlier not to let the center slide into the same cycle of delays that plagued the Civic Center, said people are waiting for action. "We have a community over there that relies heavily on an active community center for their kids," she said.

Bellamy's warning was more dire. "I think if we walk away without a clear decision tonight, we do more harm to a community that, quite frankly, isn't very trustful of Council," she said. "A segment of our population will say once again the city has let us down." The Reid Center is largely used by members of Asheville's African American population, as well as families living in the city's lower-income neighborhoods.

But Cape said she saw danger in changing course yet again on the center. "I'm afraid if we go backwards, we aren't going to get this done," she said, making a motion to move forward on the first phase of the new construction. Bellamy said she would not support that move without a guarantee that Council will follow through in providing funding for later phases, including construction of new athletic facilities. Instructions that staff continue looking for funding options (possibly in the form of a bond issue) were added to the motion, at which point it passed 6-1 with Mumpower voting no.

The local angle

Asheville's efforts to secure stimulus funds have borne fruit, says Brenda Mills, the city's point person on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Soon the work will start. "We're getting ready to do a lot of contracting in the next 30 to 45 days," she told Council.

In anticipation of that work, Bellamy had, over the past few months, frequently asked staff to determine if preference could be given to local contractors for projects within Asheville. But Mills reported that the bidding process is heavily regulated by state law. "There is no precedent in North Carolina for local preference," she told Council. In addition, the city does not have the authority to subsidize local companies that are unable to make the lowest bid.

But the process, in which the city publicly advertises for bids and awards jobs to the lowest qualified bidder, is only used for projects that cost over $30,000. While that may seem like small change in construction terms, she told Council that most of the city's contracts are under that threshold, and those contracts are mostly awarded to local companies.

That wasn't good enough for Mumpower, who asked to hear ways to pressure the General Assembly into allowing an exemption on the selection process.

"It is their action that is limiting our ability to spend local tax dollars on local businesses," he said.

The conversation isn't as simple as Asheville's borders, noted Mills, who asked what Council would consider as "local." Mumpower ticked off his priorities, beginning with Asheville, then extending to Buncombe County, the WNC Region and North Carolina, before ending with the United States. He declared China last.

Cape, though, got Mills' message, saying, "We are a regional economy. That is a difficult question."

And Newman said undoing the current bidding system could take the city where it doesn't want to go.

"There are some genuine tradeoffs," Newman said. "If you take it too far, you end up with a Good Ol' Boy system." And he noted that plenty of Asheville contractors do work in other communities.

Council member Kelly Miller asked if large jobs could be broken up in order to fall below the $30,000 threshold, a move Mills said was illegal. "We'll get in trouble for doing that," she said.

With that news in mind, Bellamy asked that items on the city's agenda display the names of contractors performing the work, "so that people will see the money that is staying here." And she said that she wanted more outreach to local companies to make sure they know how and when to apply for contracts.

It's all in the strategy

Every year, typically in January and usually in a location far removed from the Council chambers in City Hall, Council sits in a two-day retreat to discuss, among other things, its Strategic Operating Plan. This is the short list of the big themes Council wants running through all of its decisions over the next year. For the past two years, the SOP has included the adjectives "affordable," "green," "safe" and "sustainable" among Council policy goals. Meeting at the WNC Nature Center nine months ago, Council added "fiscally responsible" in anticipation of an incoming budget shortfall. But it was the first four goals Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson focused on in his quarterly presentation to Council on the SOP.

Highlights include 95 new affordable units in Asheville in the past year and a drop in municipal electricity use of 6.3 percent— equal, Richardson said, to half the power used by City Hall in a year. Richardson also cited a new eight-member downtown police patrol, drops in violent and property crime, and the upcoming nuisance court as evidence that the city is becoming safer.

But the numbers related to homelessness prompted the most discussion. According to Richardson's presentation, general homelessness in Asheville is up five percent, whereas chronic homelessness is down 25 percent. Chronic homelessness, defined as the condition of being continually homeless or having four instances of homelessness over a year, is the main target of the city's Housing First initiative. That program, which places people into housing with no preconditions, has found homes for 231 people in the past year, Richardson reported.

Mumpower attacked the program, saying the practice doesn't address underlying issues such as mental illness or addiction, and compared the Housing First program to keeping pets. "And people do not make good pets," he said.

Davis, meanwhile, said victory is far from won, noting that the consensus is that homelessness downtown is on the rise. Davis, who owns a tire store on Patton Avenue, said he had recently seen a "gentleman in plain sight relieving himself on a wall. And not even bothering to cover himself."

Bellamy asked City Manager Gary Jackson to increase police coverage in certain known problem areas, and Newman noted that the city is about to implement a nuisance court, which will focus on many issues connected to homelessness. That court, Richardson said, should be in place in the next few months.

In other news:

• Council passed a budget amendment for $60,000 to pay for four early-voting locations for Buncombe County's municipal general elections in November. The 4-3 vote, with Mumpower, Davis and Council member Bill Russell voting no, duplicated the vote two weeks earlier when the resolution was adopted to create the sites. The Buncombe County Board of Elections hasn't selected the locations yet.
• Council also unanimously passed new language to bylaws regarding city appointees to boards and commissions. Under the new rules, appointees will have to take an oath of office and can be removed if they violate that oath. And boards will have to comply with open-meeting law, issue public announcements of all meetings and conduct business only if a quorum of board members is present.

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