01/17/07 — Duplin convention center is costing county money

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Duplin convention center is costing county money

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 17, 2007 1:48 PM

KENANSVILLE -- With an eye toward future tax cuts and subsequent reductions in spending, Duplin County's commissioners called on convention and visitors bureau director Rob Wells Tuesday to find out exactly how much it is costing them to operate the Duplin County Events Center.

But what they really learned was slightly more interesting -- that through a series of missteps, the firm contracted to manage the center has been reduced to an advisory role since July 2005.

That new information, Duplin Commission Chairman David Fussell said, tempered the commissioners' disappointment in the Event Center's performance so far, but only slightly.

"It's sort of like the fellow that has two rotten teeth. He gets one pulled, but the other's still there, and it hurts," he said.

The center, which opened in early 2006, is a multi-purpose facility. In recent months, it has hosted such events as private parties, business conventions, a government-sponsored wild Mustang auction and a Lipizzaner Stallion show.

Since August, the center has been used for 39 days -- for both public and private functions. Together, those events have brought more than 14,500 people through the doors and a net revenue of slightly more than $33,000.

When the center opened, Wells explained, it was charged with meeting two goals -- generating revenue that can contribute to its budget and generating an economic impact in the county through food and gasoline sales, hotel bills and other purchases. The center also has provided the opportunity for local residents to earn about $11,000 in wages by working at the various shows.

"We feel confident we've done both of those. We generated revenue. We'd like it to be higher, but we generated revenue. And we generated a viable economic impact," Wells said. "This facility has had a great start and it's working as it was expressed to me it should."

However, Fussell explained, when taking into account the rest of the facility's overhead, the Duplin County Events Center actually has lost about $143,000 so far this fiscal year, and is costing the county about $1,106 a day to operate. That does not include the $22 million in debt service still owed on the entire Duplin Commons complex.

And that is why he asked for the Events Center's report Monday, he continued.

"No. 1, I was trying to come up with the financial information," Fussell said, adding that the center needs to be used more to make it profitable. "There must be a marketing program developed."

But, as the commissioners found out, that's the problem.

They have a contract in place for a marketing firm to manage and operate the Events Center, but since that contract was signed in July 2005, the company's role has been reduced to that of an adviser.

"That's just the way it evolved. But our role as an adviser isn't getting the job done, and we want to get the job done," said Carl St. Clair, senior consultant project manager for Compass Facility Management Inc.

When asked how exactly circumstances "evolved" to the point the county was paying $6,750 a month for management services and only getting advisory services, St. Clair explained that it wasn't really a situation in which fingers could be pointed.

Part of it, he continued, had to do with the fact the previous county administration wanted to keep the Events Center's employees under county control, when in the contract, it specified that the center's employees were supposed to be answering to Compass -- a relationship that hasn't worked.

"I think it's good we found that out," Fussell said, as the board directed county staff and Compass to begin work on returning the company to its management role.

Luckily, St. Clair said, with the necessary agreement already in place, repairing the relationship should be a relatively easy process.

"We think this is a multi-purpose facility. We think you have a fabulous building and we think you have some very good things standing for you here," he said. "We know the elements are in place. We just need to go out and drag business in. We've got to make people identify and know your building is here.

"We're the event experts. We want to get in a strong driver's seat with you and make this facility produce for you."