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   On Monday night the city-appointed Fayetteville Museum of Art Task Force presented its recommendations to the Fayetteville City Council during its work session. The council took no official action on the recommendations but will take it up at an upcoming meeting for action.
   The task force was formed at the request of City Councilman Ted Mohn after opposition was raised to the park’s construction  in Festival Park and questions were raised concerning the museum’s ability to pay for the construction and the sustainment of the facility. The task force, composed of individual’s recommended by the city council, the museum and the Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County, has been meeting for several months. They were tasked with determining the financial viability and sustainability of the proposed new museum facility, recommending a site for the museum and ensuring proper parking was available at whatever site they recommend.
   On Monday the task force chairman, local banker Scott Baker, brought the recommendations to the council.
   In regards to the financial sustainability of the project, the task force reported that its members, after careful scrutiny of the museum’s current and past financials and its sustainability reports, did not believe the proposed $15 million facility was sustainable.

   Throughout the task force’s discussions, the topic of financial sustainability has often turned acrimonious. Task force members appointed by the museum — Meredith Stiehl, Mark Sternlicht and Ralph Huff — have contended that the museum’s financials and sustainability of the project have been studied in detail by professionals and were not and should not be a part of the task force’s discussions.
   Other members, led by Linda Devore and Dave Wilson, have been adamant that the financials were at the heart of the tasking by the council. Devore has frequently pointed out that the sustainability report was created using numbers that were questionable, including sales in the museum gift shop and attendance.
   During the task force’s final meeting on Jan. 26, Sternlicht again argued that the museum had presented a sustainability study that involved budgets and projected incomes for the new facility and how money would be raised and generated to fund it. “That seems to me to be the only information we have on the issue of sustainability,” said Sternlicht.
   Devore countered that information in the study was not credible and would have a bearing on the sustainability. She added that since the study was conducted in 2006 many factors have shifted in the economy. She pointed to the fact that the museum’s study used increased attendance numbers to project revenue, but noted that attendance numbers at the museum are decreasing. “We have every reason to believe that trend will continue in that direction” she said.
   Following limited discussion, the task force voted that the project was not sustainable. Sternlicht voted in opposition on the sustainment issue, a visibly upset Stiehl abstained and Huff was not in attendance.
In regards to site selection, the task force had initially agreed to recommend three sites — a 1-acre site in Festival Park in the proposed facility’s current location, a second 1-acre site realigned closer to Ray Avenue and a site in the city-owned AIT parking lot.
  Devore made an impassioned plea for the task force to come together and make a unanimous recommendation to the council. Devore said one of the reasons she wanted to be on the task force was to try and rescue the project. She said that everyone on the task force, no matter their opinion on the current proposed project, wants a museum downtown. She added that the park cannot be built without public support for the project, and that the construction of the project in Festival Park would not garner public support. She asked the museum to use the 1-acre site within Festival Park that they have the deed for as a bargaining chip. “You have three years and three months left on the deed. You need to consider it as a bargaining chip,” she said. “Dr. Pennik (the chairman of the museum board) says no significant fundraising can be done in the three years and three months. At that time you will have lost your bargaining chip. You can use it now to facilitate a swap to entice the city to swap for an alternative site. I would like to see that happen. I would like to see this project succeed.”
   She asked the task force to unanimously recommend the AIT site as the best site to get a fresh start on the project. “I think you will find that this site will work. The public will support it and the museum will be built,” she said.
   George Breece asked Sternlicht and Stiehl and museum director Tom Grubb to comment on the idea.
   Sternlicht, an attorney who works with the museum board of directors, noted that the fixation on three years and three months was not appropriate, adding that the city and the museum have a contract and the time on the contract is extendable if the museum was unable to build because of acts beyond their control. He noted that the city’s action in failing to convey the property and by forming the task force is responsible for the museum’s inability to raise funds for the project.
   Devore said she was “really disappointed by the museum’s stance,” stating, “I think this means that there isn’t going to be a museum built downtown, so I really don’t see your end game.”
Stiehl dropped a veritable bombshell on task force members when she said that recommending the AIT site would limit the museum by giving it no alternative negotiations. She added that the limiting recommendation wasn’t much of a lifeline at all.
   “If we are going to have credit for a bargaining chip, let us bargain with it and don’t take away our ability to bargain with it,” said Stiehl.
   Breece asked if there were other locations the museum was considering. That discussion centered on the Festival Park Plaza, otherwise known as the Lundy Building. After further discussion, the task force agreed to recommend that site as the fourth possible site to the city council.
   During a telephone interview prior to the task force’s presentation, Mayor Tony Chavonne said the city did not own any part of the Lundy building, but rather had a master lease on the facility. With this arrangement, the city would pay the rent on the privately owned facility if it could not be rented. He said to date the city has not had to pay any rent.
   The 300,000 square-foot building, which is the headquarters of Schoolink and a law firm, has a large square footage of the facility that is not rented.
   Since the task force’s Jan. 26 meeting, many in the community have argued that the museum could begin a staged move to downtown by offering some programming and events in the empty facility.
   No action has been taken by the museum or the city on this idea; however, the task force did recommend the site as the fourth location in its presentation to the city.

Contact Janice Burton at editor@upandcomingweekly.com

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