04/08/08 — Duplin Commissioners will give Events Center one more year

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Duplin Commissioners will give Events Center one more year

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 8, 2008 2:02 PM

KENANSVILLE -- With five of the six Duplin County Commissioners voting to give the Duplin County Events Center one more year to get on track -- and the sixth voting no only because he wanted to stop county funding immediately -- property manager VenueWorks was officially put on notice Monday afternoon that it's time for the much-maligned building to begin carrying its own weight.

The events center, which was built in 2005 as part of an $11 million Duplin Commons project, has operated in the red since it opened.

This year, the commissioners budgeted for an expected shortfall of $295,000.

On Monday, they added $50,000 -- from the sale of surplus property -- to that total just in case things get worse than the now expected $311,000 shortfall VenueWorks senior project consultant Carl St. Clair shared with the board.

The problem, he admitted, has been a lack of events.

One reason for that was the installation of better acoustical material on the walls and ceiling -- a need not anticipated during the original construction -- that was not complete until early March. Another is the need to install light rigging -- a project just approved Monday.

But most of all, St. Clair said, it's been a string of bad luck -- events just falling through.

"It seems that if we didn't have bad luck we wouldn't have any luck at all," he said.

Among those other setbacks have been the cancellation of a poker tournament after finding out they couldn't legally host one in North Carolina, and the potential cancellation of a county fair because of their inability to find any available carnival operators for September.

Other events that fell through, but that they are still working on include a tractor pull, a bull ride and a rodeo.

Also being looked at are concert and wrestling opportunities.

But because of the slow year, St. Clair explained, center sponsorship is still probably a ways off -- at least until the center becomes well established.

"I don't look for that in the next year," he said.

He does, however, believe next year will be a better year.

"Our efforts are paying off," St. Clair said. "This has been a repairing year and a marketing year. And it's been a frustrating year for some of us, but it's important to understand that people are finding out about us and that they like the facility."

That, though, did not stop Commissioner David Fussell from attempting to offer motions to stop the funding of taxpayer money into the center's operating costs.

"The county has no business being in the entertainment business," he said. "With the recession to come and there being so many needs in the county, we need to be very, very careful how we spend our taxpayers' money, and when I know something is not going to turn a profit, I can't continue to put tax money in it. This is the same story we've heard the last three years."

It is, he added, costing the county more than 1.5 cents on the tax rate -- about $900 a day -- just to operate the center, not counting its debt service or the $800,000 already designated and partially spent for capital improvements.

The other commissioners, while not as quick to condemn the building, agreed that the events center is becoming a drain.

"I'm going to try to support you through this year, but after this year I'm going to have to cut and run," Commission chairman Harold Raynor said. "Wherever I go in the county, this gets thrown in my face at least three or four times a week. We've got to draw up the strings and close the bag."

"This coming year is a make-or-break year as far as my support," Commissioner Cary Turner said. "I'll go with you one more time, but show me something."