07/15/09 — Duplin Events Center haunts commission

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Duplin Events Center haunts commission

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 15, 2009 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- The Duplin County Events Center, long an object of derision, continues to haunt county commissioners while serving as a political fodder.

A review earlier this month of the center's 2008-09 performance proved to be no different and underscored what appeared to be some tension between Commissioner David Fussell and center's advisory board.

Fussell, a longtime critic of the center, did not appear swayed by John Vogt of Venue Works, the company that has the contract to manage the center, who said the center came in within the budget this past year, a first in its history.

"In the four years that the Events Center has operated it has lost $1,588,542," Fussell said. "It is projected to lose another $300,000 this coming year. My question to this board is how many millions of dollars are you willing lose. I look at the bottom line. It is not a feel good thing.

"I appreciate the advisory council and I thank you for what you do. You are not charged with the responsibility that we are to look after the taxpayers' money of Duplin County. That is this board's responsibility. You are sort of an advisory towards that."

Fussell had asked that Billy Varker of Midnite Productions of Albertson to appear before the board to discuss his company. It was the second time Varker has been before the board expressing an interest in the contract to manage the center.

The county is in the process of seeking requests for proposals for companies interested in managing the center.

The center hosted a record number of events at 78 -- more than the past three years combined, Vogt said.

He added that more than 57,740 people attended events during the year up from 20,450 in 2007-08. That, he said, shows support from the community.

He noted that the county allocation for 2008-09 was $300,887 down from $358,824 in 2007-08 and that revenues rose from $74,503 in 2007-08 to $242,673 in 2008-09.

Just six days into new fiscal year, some 40 events already are scheduled including a Christmas concert by the Oak Ridge Boys in November.

In addition, Vogt said he is talking with a South Carolina arena football team that is interested in relocating to Duplin County because of its proximity to Wilmington and Fayetteville and arena football teams.

Fussell asked County Manager Mike Aldridge when the county would make its requests for proposals from companies interested in managing the center.

A draft copy should be ready to supply to the Events Center Advisory Board and have to commissioners by the board's second meeting in August, he said. It will be October before a recommendation would be available.

In response to questioning by Aldridge as to whether any commissioners wanted to be involved, Chairman Cary Turner said that he did.

"How much input are we going to allow the existing board of the Events Center to play in this?" said Commissioner Reginald Wells. "Is it something that is going to be ceremonial or they going to have real input?"

"Seeing the operation of the facility when that body was created, that was its role," Aldridge said. "It is kind of putting them in a bad spot because you didn't ask them if they wanted to do this (proposal)."

"We have come a long way and people on the board understand the word advisory," said advisory board member Jimmy Sauls. "We understand that we are advisory, but we do feel like with the time and input we have put into it, and working with John and different ones that we should be involved to the point at least our recommendations are considered by the board (of commissioners). We would ask you'd at least consider the advisory boards recommendations."

"Let me follow up on that," Wells said. '"Let's not create the atmosphere that we have with the economic development board. We in a sense became very adversarial or they became disinterested because we did not listen to their input. I hope we don't run into that same situation with this."

Sauls added, "This county gets a tremendous amount of free time from volunteers. All I am saying is that is the responsibility of the board (of commissioners) that when you all agree that people being on advisory board, at least you should have consideration of time we have spent and listen to our recommendations and discuss them whether you agree with them or don't. That is basically how that (advisory) board feels."

Turner said he was interested in being involved in order to have a better understanding of the process. He said what had gotten his attention was an increase in the center contract in light of the economy.

Aldridge reminded commissioners that the contract was written to allow incremental increases.

"Last year they chose not to ask for that increase," he said.

However, during the course of the year, they asked for the increase, but it was not budgeted so it could not be granted in the middle of the year, he said

Wells said the county needs to compare "apples to apples."

"Because I can do something cheaper does not always mean I can do it more effectively," he said.

Wells said he was not advocating for anyone, but rather that the county needs to be objective. The county needs to be careful of having someone underbid.

"We can't just look at folks who are underbidding," he said. "A lot of times folks do that knowing going in they can't do what they are saying."

Turner agreed.

"If you look at what is required of them (Venue Works) I think they have got plenty of money," Turner said.

Sauls agreed, but noted that when it started the center was not in the physical condition it should have been in.

"We are on the right track," he said. "What we pay the company is none of my business except for continuity in this type of business is pretty evident.

Wells questioned how changing management would affect pending events.

Vogt said some, like the Oak Ridge Boys, would not be affected. While contracts in the works could be.

Sauls and Advisory Board Chairman Stephen Williamson said people talk about how much the center costs the county. However, they fail to take into accountant such intangibles such as sales tax revenues.

In addition, in prior years the county has failed to promote the facility. He said he had told Venue Works it was not "aggressive enough" in promoting the center.

Varker said ticket prices were too high at the center and that a better job needed to be done in advertising the center than just by placing signs along roads.

Varker said he could manage the facility and have it make a profit or least break even within two years

Wells asked how he would do that.

Varker said he would better utilize radio, television, and the Internet to advertise the center and its events.

Also, having a local company manage the center would keep the money in the county, he said.

He said that taxpayers "need to be free of the burden" they have carried for the past four years.

Commissioner Zettie Williams asked Varker if he, too, would ask for county money to subsidize the center.

He responded he would come back with a proposal with all of the numbers.