City to Conservancy: Work out debt if you want to manage the park ***UPDATED Wednesday 12:30 p.m.***

A letter from City Attorney Bob Oast to the Pack Square Conservancy reveals that the city of Asheville wants the Conservancy to repay over the next year approximately $2 million that the city is owed. Until then, the city “cannot agree to allow the Conservancy to operate or manage the park to any substantial degree.” The city also wants an independent financial audit of the Conservancy.

While Asheville City Council was expected to discuss the situation in closed session at its meeting last night and make a statement afterwards, no statement was made.

“My sense is that there’s some positive progress forwards,” Director of Administrative Services Lauren Bradley tells Xpress.

The May 14 letter, obtained by Xpress, is to Conservancy Chair Guy Clerici, and says it is in response to a letter “proposing a resolution of the financial issues between the Pack Square Conservancy and the City of Asheville.”

The Conservancy effort has been beset by financial difficulties for some time. The nearly $17 million work that was done on the park took five years, and came in both over-budget and late; a planned pavilion is delayed indefinitely; and word emerged recently that the Conservancy doesn’t have the funds to build a cover for the events stage or public restrooms.

According to the letter, the city now wants payment for the funds it paid contractors for the construction. Oast writes that “$2,000,000 is an acceptable working figure” for the funds owed, and that the city wants to be paid by June 1, 2011 or have “a firm commitment for such payments.” Oast notes that “we understand that economic times are difficult, but think that the Conservancy’s fundraising efforts will be strongest and most successful in the first year.”

Because North Carolina Department of the Transportation funds were involved in the construction, and NCDOT can’t directly give money to a non-governmental organization, the city has paid the contractors and then received reimbursement from the Conservancy. However, those payments stopped in January, according to city records. Currently, the Conservancy owes the city $1,979,939.91, though some of those funds, due May 13, aren’t yet considered past due.

“We’re all using $2 million as a working number, but work is continuing, and it could be more,” Bradley says.

After the Pack Conservancy stopped paying the city at the start of the year, City Manager Gary Jackson sent a Feb. 25 letter demanding payment under the agreements signe dby “I regret that this step is necessary and trust that you, Board members, and staff understand the contract administration responsibilities require this at the current time.”

The city has a number of other issues it wants addressed, according to Oast, including resolving all issues with contractors and making plans for constructing a facility that includes public restrooms, “a feature that is important to Council.”

And, if Oast’s letter is any indication, the city is willing to withhold the Conservancy’s authority to manage the park until it gets what it wants.

“Unless and until the Conservancy’s financial commitment to the City is satisfied, the City cannot agree to allow the Conservancy to operate or manage the park to any substantial degree.” Oast’s letter explains that this means the park’s May 28 grand opening “must be re-characterized or re-styled to reflect current actual circumstances. As we have been discussing, work on the park is not complete — and importantly — the conservancy’s financial obligation to the City has not been satisfied. While an event recognizing the substantial progress made on the park and encouraging further fundraising is certainly appropriate, a grand opening or ribbon cutting is not, and Council will not participate in or recognize such an event.”

Oast mentions the city is ruling out a management agreement with the Conservancy: “the City could agree to waiving event fees for Conservancy fundraising events, but not for any other purpose.”

Any agreement about paying the city back, Oast says, will have to involve the city reviewing the Conservancy’s financial practices and an independent audit. The letter notes that city representative “would like to meet with you to discuss these matters next week.”

Clerici tells Xpress that the letter was “part of a discussion that’s been going on for quite some time… in some ways that letter is from one lawyer to another. Bob is a good friend of mine.”

However, he notes that the tone of the letter surprised him.

“Bob and I talk about this several times a week,” he says. “The last meeting we all had [after the letter was sent out] was a very cordial meeting, so I’m not sure why that tone got into the letter. I asked Bob that and he didn’t really have an answer for me.”

As for the audit, he says the conservancy does an annual third-party audit and Buncombe County has done one as well. “It was completely clean, I just don’t think they [the city] were aware that we do this as a matter of course.”

As for the celebrations on Friday, Clerici says they will be dubbed a “milestone,” as the city requested.

“That was sort of a misunderstanding, we’re now calling it a ‘milestone’ because we’re moving from the construction phase to people having activities in the park, which is what we’ll be doing forever, that’s our mission from here on out,” Clerici notes.

— David Forbes, senior reporter


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11 thoughts on “City to Conservancy: Work out debt if you want to manage the park ***UPDATED Wednesday 12:30 p.m.***

  1. Gerry Provost

    It’s about time someone held the conservancy people accountable. $17 million for what we got!! I think it should have been left alone.

    Another thing. What happened to our sculpures? The ones that were in the park that we paid for, that have disappeared?

  2. artart

    Anyone who donates additional money to the conservancy is simply reinforcing the proven ineptitude of the members of that group. In addition, they are effectively reimbursing the city of Asheville for it’s bad decisionmaking it letting this entire project be run like it was. So the city government, under force of law, takes our money to use (or misuse) for the personal priorities of elected officials, and now after even more bad decisionmaking, they want us to donate more? I think the previous park was fine and now we had years of inconvenience, and according to the article, 17 million that could have gone to more important things and still no restrooms!

  3. The City is being irresponsible if it issues ANY management agreements, then does not enforce that agreement. It is the City Managers responsibility to see that agreements are adhered to.

  4. michelle

    The park is a mess. We have an ugly fountain that does not work as intended, the pavilion with no cover, the military memorial plaques of the service members do not do them justice as they are horribly depicted and STILL no bathroooms!

    What were they thinking? The Vance Memorial has more concerete around it than grass and the whole place looks more like a metropolitan city than a park.

    Splashville will be more precious water wasted and more to maintain.

    What a nightmare! What a travesty!

  5. LOKEL

    Why this has taken so long is beyond me …. those folks at the “Conservancy” need to be replaced with an entirely new bunch of folks.

  6. orulz

    I actually think the park looks nice and a spot like the Vance Monument SHOULD have more concrete around it than grass. The way the park was before sucked, more than half of it was crisscrossed with driveways and parking lots for the courthouse. The new design is not world class but it is an improvement.

    Urban parks in downtowns like this, particularly ones of this size, need to have a lot of hardscape. I disagree with Michelle that the presence of concrete around Vance Monument means that it is a failed design. The value of a park is not measured by the percentage of ground that is covered by grass. This is not Weaver Park in North Asheville with baseball fields and such. This is also not the National Mall which is two miles long. Those work great for what and where they are. This is something different.

    The big problem is, how the heck did they burn $17 million to get it this far when the original budget was something like $5 million, and how did it get so far behind schedule? The new design is serviceable. Totally worth $5 million. But it should not have cost $17 million (plus whatever it will cost to finish it.) I agree that the city needs to hold the conservancy accountable. This audit is long overdue, in fact, and I fault the city for not holding their feet to the flame sooner. I predict that the conservancy will be disgraced by an audit when the extent of their mismanagement is exposed.

    The Conservancy should not have been responsible for managing such a big public works project. They clearly did not have the experience necessary. They should have done the fundraising, got public input, and even come up with a design, and then turned it over to the city for engineering and construction management.

  7. skiplunch

    What a giant waste of money. I fondly remember sitting on a folding chair in the grass of the REAL Pack Square Park listening to music and storytellers. Where is a good city planner when you need one?

  8. Park Watcher

    Did anyone else have an idea that the park would (or should) have extended completely from the courthouse/city hall to the Vance Monument, with only an access road for the fire department? If New York City can start closing large portions of Times Square to traffic, could Asheville have parks of some magnitude at Pack Place and Pritchard “Park?” See Harvard Square for another way of devoting less space to cars and more to humans.

  9. Joseph Barcia

    I agree that the city should take this stand to the conservancy, but it astounds me how the city is so willing to give money to the Grove Arcade.

  10. Park Watcher

    Pff. . .where does the traffic that “cuts through” Pack Square go now? Doesn’t it just empty back out, after a short detour, onto College? Why does the little stretch of College behind the Biltmore Building need to be one-way?

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