11/17/09 — Bickering leaders keep status quo on controversial Duplin Events Center

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Bickering leaders keep status quo on controversial Duplin Events Center

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on November 17, 2009 1:46 PM

VenuWorks will continue managing the Duplin County Events Center, despite a tie vote on the issue Monday by the Duplin County Board of Commissioners.

The commissioners previously requested that County Manager Mike Aldridge and the center advisory committee look at other options for managing the center. Aldridge and the committee examined another management company, SMG, and made reference checks on both companies. They presented the information before the board at the meeting yesterday.

It's "not realistic" that the center will be profitable this year, committee leader Steve Williamson said.

"We're not in this alone," he said, and pointed out difficulties at other similar venues across the country.

Ultimately, the SMG contract would be more expensive and the company would have to start from scratch, whereas the current manager, VenuWorks, has a head start and is continuing to work toward developing the center, Williamson said.

"There's no doubt those relationships could be rebuilt, but it's also important to remember we're on an upward trend," he told commissioners. "We're stating the train that's going to roll."

The advisory committee voted unanimously to continue to employ VenuWorks through the length of the contract, which expires in June of 2010, and suggested extending the contract with the company beyond next year.

But questions and doubts expressed by commissioners made Williamson feel like they must "defend ourselves instead of trying to move forward," he said.

Commissioner David Fussell pointed to the Evergreen audit, which strongly suggested the county should be able to get the center to a level of profitability within the next few years.

"I thought it would be a revenue creator, but it hasn't happened," Fussell said, challenging Williamson to go back and read the minutes from previous commissioner meetings where Williamson had allegedly stated that the center would make money for the county.

But Williamson reiterated the committee's position.

"We want to do what's best for Duplin County citizens, and keeping this with VenuWorks is the best way to do that," he said.

"Are you going to be able to make sure it breaks even in 2011-2012?" Fussell asked.

"I don't know," Williamson replied.

And the Evergreen audit did not look at "how far the center has come," he added.

But Fussell was unconvinced.

"You've got to do what you said you were going to do," he said.

Commissioner Reginald Wells also voiced his thoughts on the issue, imploring board members not to "be petty."

"The initial concept of that building was not how it has turned out as it progressed. It's not that you flip-flop or that you're wishy-washy. Information drives decisions," Wells said.

The arguing over the center was preventing the board from moving forward on the issue, he said.

"We as commissioners can be our own worst enemies in Duplin County. We're going to have to man up, or woman up, if I can use that term. It's time to move on," Wells said.

Williamson said in response that he felt his committee has had to defend the event center.

"You've put me in a corner and I'm tired of defending the facility. I need your support and I need it today. We're doing the very best we can as a board," he said.

The committee had held multiple meetings on the issue, and commissioners had not attended to ask questions, Williamson said.

VenuWorks President Steve Peters challenged commissioners to find proof that other, similar event centers are making a profit.

"We came to this project very late," Peters said. "Either vote us up or vote us down. For God's sakes, we can't walk on water."

Fussell said he would take on the challenge.

If the county continued to employ VenuWorks, "you might as well take the $135,000 we paid (for the Evergreen audit) and throw it in the commode," he said.

Commissioner Zettie Williams made a motion to continue the contract, seconded by Wells. The vote tied 3-3.

The county is still operating under a contract with VenuWorks. The contract does not expire until the end of June next year.