The mayor and local news media declared victory for Wilder in the latest episode of the performing arts center saga, a claim underscored by the resignation of foundation president and chief executive Brad Armstrong and layoffs of five additional administrators. Another story line, meanwhile, got less attention. Amid the political posturing, the fight had shifted: It's now a land grab.
It appears that Wilder may have a difficult time winning this one, bully pulpit or not. In the past six months, the mayor has made it clear he wants the property where Thalhimers once stood to be given "back" to the city. The city, however, doesn't hold the deed to the property and never has, foundation officials say. They contend the foundation has the deed. Board members say their attempt to deliver a $2 million check to the city last week to disable a "reverter clause" that would give the city ownership of the land in the event the arts center didn't get built by 2007 solidifies their claim.
Wilder calls it a "scheme" that was ethically and morally reprehensible. The foundation says it's merely protecting itself.
"They think they should have that land for private purposes. I disagree with that assumption," Wilder says. "Consequently, the housing authority disagrees with it. No, that is not the circumstance at all."
Wilder's assertion that the foundation has no right to take land that the city kicked in $2 million to purchase may win the court of public opinion he says the land is now worth much more than that. But in an actual courtroom, foundation officials are confident it won't fly. The mayor, a lawyer, says he's ready to fight.
"They don't run this city anymore," Wilder says. "If you want to go to court, let's go to court. Let's get it on."
At the foundation's Oct. 12 press conference, John W. Bates III, foundation secretary and a partner at McGuireWoods, said the board was ready.
"I don't know what [Wilder's position] is," Bates says of the property dispute. "I'm telling you what ours is that we own it."
Bates says the foundation's board of directors has agreed to retain legal counsel in case it must defend the position in court. The foundation doesn't plan to sue, he says, but it's prepared to protect itself. Beverley W. "Booty" Armstrong, a prominent local investor who also serves as the board's treasurer, reaffirmed the point.
"We will do whatever it takes to protect the ownership we already have," Armstrong says. (Bates adds that the foundation would even consider private proposals to purchase the property if the opportunity arises.)
The comments smacked of bravado, but Bates says securing the Thalhimers property is an important step in the plan to renovate the Carpenter Center, now the board's main priority. This is expected to cost $43 million. Part of the renovation will take place on the Thalhimers property, he says, which made securing the deed critical.
Wilder maintains that the foundation's contract with the city to purchase the block was voided when former City Auditor Lance Kronzer determined the foundation had misused some meals-tax funds. Last week, Wilder called on the arts group to return $7.6 million the city had paid out.
At a press conference Oct.11, he blamed the "sweetheart deal" for the Thalhimers block on former City Manager Calvin Jamison. Wilder also said that the foundation's leadership helped put Jamison in that position (Jamison was widely criticized for having no government-management experience).
"Of course they wanted someone like Jamison in there to give the store away," said Wilder, who vowed to "stand resolutely at the door" to prevent the foundation from taking any more tax dollars.
The foundation says it doesn't plan to rely on any more city meals-tax funds as it moves forward, but insists that the city is obligated to live up to its original agreement. The foundation claims the city still owes it $20.2 million.
Insiders say the foundation's board of directors banded together when Wilder rejected the $2 million check, dismissing it as a scheme. That, they felt, was a clear indication that the mayor had other plans for the property. The foundation also anticipated their move to downsize staff and Brad Armstrong's decision to resign would be enough to appease Wilder. (Sources say Wilder disliked Armstrong so much that he banned him from his office, a claim the mayor denies.) It wasn't.
Wilder appeared more resolute than ever last week. If the foundation feels it has the legal standing, it may cede much more in a political battle. The foundation anticipated its recent announcements would finally end the stalemate. But they seemed to only inflame the situation. The foundation plans to focus on fund-raising, Ukrop says, regardless of what the mayor does.
If the last six months are any indication, that may not be possible. "These high-sounding phrases mean nothing," the mayor says. "You take my money and use it to buy my land? How lucky you are, you lucky rascal." S
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