07/17/11 — Second city building pitched for museum

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Second city building pitched for museum

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on July 17, 2011 12:14 AM

While the City Council begins its analysis of what to do with its Air Force museum plans and newly purchased building at 2406 E. Ash St., one downtown property owner can't help but think the city missed a golden opportunity.

"I felt like it would have been excellent for downtown," Ernie Mansour said of the Air Force museum project.

Mansour presented his property, at 123 N. Center St., for the council's consideration as a possible home for the Air Force museum in the waning weeks before the council's final vote, and a written proposal was included in the council's July 5 agenda packet, packaged within an item containing a budget ordinance authorizing the purchase of the building on Ash Street owned by the Arts Council of Wayne County.

The council approved that ordinance by a 7-0 vote and Mansour left the meeting shortly after. He said he was told that the council preferred the Ash Street location because of its proximity to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

"I still felt like it would have been a real nice asset for downtown and spurred true and sustained growth," he said.

Mansour proposed to sell his building to the city for $650,000, claiming the building was ready for the museum to move in. He, alternatively, offered to lease the 12,000-square-foot building at $6 per square foot annually for a total cost of $72,000 each, and noted that the Arts Council could maintain the building and museum in exchange for using the building for free.

Mansour said the proposal would bring both cultural centers downtown and ease the Arts Council's pressure to sell its current building.

Mansour was so set on bringing the two organizations downtown, he presented the city with an option to lease the property for the first three months at no cost.

City Hall received Mansour's proposal June 29, just six days before the council was scheduled to pull the trigger on the Arts Council building purchase. Mansour said he held off with his proposal because he assumed the Ash Street purchase was already a done deal. When the council and Arts Council agreed to extend the deadline, he decided to make his case.

"When I saw the delay and I've heard so many people talk about they didn't think they could spend $1.4 million (for renovations) -- it seemed like a stumbling block," he said.

The timing factored in to the council's pass on his property, interim City Manager Tasha Logan said, but what truly drove the decision was the same reason the council had targeted the building on Ash Street all along: Its location.

"Council really liked the location of the building on the corner of Ash and Spence for its proximity to the base," she said, adding there was also interest in tying in nearby Stoney Creek Park.

Had Mansour's concept been presented sooner, she said it likely wouldn't have altered the council's vote.

"I don't know that it would have had a major impact on their decision," she said. "They liked its ability to tie it into an existing city park."

Although up to three land-owners own land between the building and the park, Ms. Logan said the possibility of an easement through the properties could likely be worked out, making a nature trail connecting Stoney Creek and the museum.

Downtown Goldsboro Development Corp. Director Julie Thompson said the likelihood of bringing the Air Force museum downtown was slimmed when the Arts Council placed its building on the market.

"It's hard to argue with that location," she said of the building's proximity to the base and the building's design.

Still, the shuffling of properties will be a boon to downtown as it will bring the Arts Council to the corner of Walnut and John streets.

"We did look at that building," said Sarah Merritt, Arts Council executive director, of Mansour's property on South Center Street. "We considered a lot of different alternatives and really weighed our options, but that facility and location, it was not much smaller than what we're in now. If we're going to right-size our organization, we're going to right-size our organization."

As for the combination of the museum and the Arts Council, Mrs. Merritt said that Mansour's addressing of the council during the public comment period was the first she had heard of it.

"It completely caught me off guard," she said. It's an interesting proposal but feasibility of it would have been really difficult. A museum is a completely different animal from an arts council. Their purposes are parallel, but they're very different."

Mrs. Merritt said she doubted her staff of two full-time and one part-time workers could handle running a museum on top of managing studio space and pursuing the arts center's mission. She said extensive maintenance of a large facility was precisely why her organization was seeking to get out of the building on Ash Street in the first place.

Mrs. Merritt said her organization plans to move to its new location at 102 N. John St. later this month.