04/10/07 — Duplin commission OKs events center contract

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Duplin commission OKs events center contract

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 10, 2007 1:45 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Nearly two years after the contract was signed, the Duplin County Board of Commissioners is finally giving Compass Facility Management Inc. the leeway its leadership team says it needs to properly run the Duplin County Events Center.

Voting 4-1 at their April 2 meeting, the commissioners approved the company's marketing and business plans for the center, as well as its budget.

Commission Chairman David Fussell cast the lone vote in opposition. Commissioner Cary Turner, who left the meeting early because of an illness, was absent.

The Events Center, which is part of the $11 million Duplin Commons project, was built at the request of the agribusiness community, commissioner L.S. Guy said.

And, he added, at the time it was built, it wasn't a hotly debated project.

"When we built it, there were people who disagreed with it, but it was not terribly controversial," he said.

Work on the Events Center began in early summer 2004. It was finished in December 2005 and opened in early 2006, but was closed during the summer while a concrete floor was poured. It re-opened in August and has hosted private parties, business conventions, a government-sponsored wild Mustang auction and a Lipizzaner Stallion show.

All total, more than 14,500 people walked through its doors.

But it has not gone smoothly.

During a status report in January, it was discovered that not only had the facility lost nearly $143,000 since the fiscal year began in July, but also that it was not being properly operated.

The problem was that Compass, which was hired to manage the facility, had been acting only in an advisory role.

When asked why Compass wasn't living up to its $6,750-a-month management contract, senior consultant project manager Carl St. Clair said it was "just the way (the relationship) evolved" after the previous county administration insisted on keeping the center's employees under its control.

And so, the commissioners asked Compass to return in the spring with an updated plan to return to the original language of the contract.

Included in that presentation was a new marketing plan for 2007, focused on bringing more people to the center.

It proposed increasing advertising, highlighting rental options, improving its Web site, hosting regular events for local business and community leaders, developing new programming for youth and Hispanic audiences and bringing in new events and shows.

Compass also included a list of capital needs, including acoustical treatment on the center's walls, better scenery, sound and light rigging, better food service areas and a new practice arena and barn.

It is, the majority of the commission felt, a positive direction.

"We've been in a holding pattern for the past year and it's time to either land the plane or go higher and by agreeing to this plan, I think we're taking the Events Center to a higher altitude," commissioner Reginald Wells said.

But, Fussell said, the problem is that while the Events Center's revenues are estimated to be slightly more than $165,000, its expenses are estimated to be almost $455,00 -- a deficit of nearly $290,000, not including the $650,000 debt service owed on the entire Duplin Commons every year for the next 40 years.

"That's irresponsible spending as far as I'm concerned," Fussell said. "This was a great opportunity to save our taxpayers money.

"I'm upset, but there's nothing I can do. I've got one vote and they've got one vote."

He twice attempted and failed to delay the vote -- once for further consideration and once because Turner was absent.

"We could have (ended the contract), given that they had not performed as they said they would perform last year," Fussell said. "They took their check every month and they never even mentioned (the problems) until their hand was called."

The county's five-year contract with Compass includes cancellation clauses at the three-year mark or if either party defaults on the terms.

County Manager Mike Aldridge agreed that they probably could have canceled the contract, but he said that he's satisfied with the arrangement voted on by the board.

"Compass brings a level of expertise that we certainly don't possess," he said, adding that regardless of who runs the facility, it has to be done. "I think we did the best we could, but this is their specialty, especially in small markets. I feel good about where we are.

"We've acquired the best people we know of to manage and run it and now our responsibility is to try to line up behind them and support them and help it be the best facility it can be."

And, he continued, while he's disappointed about that the facility will be losing money, he thinks it will ultimately help the county.

"I feel like they've given us a reasonable picture of what to expect, but hopefully they can do better. Right now, it's comparable to what we're expecting this year," Aldridge said.

"But the other side of that coin is the economic spin-off this facility will bring to the county, bringing people into the county. That's not money coming back into county coffers, but it's money coming back into county businesses. I don't know how you can really quantify what that impact is."