04/08/10 — Duplin parts ways with VenuWorks

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Duplin parts ways with VenuWorks

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on April 8, 2010 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County officially severed ties with Duplin Events Center management company VenuWorks this week.

Duplin County Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to accept a termination agreement for the county's contract with the company, which has overseen the center's operations since it opened.

The county will save about $21,000 in management fees by ending the contract three months before it was set to expire on June 30, but the advisory committee and commissioners must now find a new entity to oversee the center.

It is possible the county will have to allocate funds toward keeping the center going for the next several months. The commissioners will pay Cannon Consulting about $2,400 to help develop a new business plan for the center.

Adding to the changes at the Duplin Events Center, a motion made by Commissioner Frances Parks for the county to obtain a new liquor license for the center failed to attract support from the other board members.

When VenuWorks accepted the termination agreement, the company canceled the ABC license for the facility. None of the board members moved to second the motion to bring it to a vote. Without procuring a new liquor license, the county will not be able to accommodate events that require a license.

Commissioner David Fussell said the original intent behind the center was to promote agriculture in the county, unrelated to selling alcohol.

"I'm in the wine business, but that's a private business. This is a public facility. We have smoke-free policies, we have drug-free policies. I do not really think it's in the public's best interest to consummate a policy of alcohol consumption," Fussell said.

Fussell said that the wine-tasting Muscadine Festival, held in the parking lot of the Duplin Events Center, will not be affected even if the county does not have a liquor license for the center. The festival can obtain a special permit to operate.

"That doesn't affect Muscadine (Festival) whatsoever," he said.

Commissioner Rev. Reginald Wells also spoke against obtaining a liquor license for the center.

"I'm going to vote no on it anyway, I don't think anybody should be drinking, period," Wells said.

Commission Chairman Cary Turner asked to be allowed to refrain from voting on the issue.

"It's just against my religious convictions. I understand free agency and the right to choose, but if I'm put in a position where I have to vote, then I'm going to have to go with my conscience," he said.

Stephen Williamson of the events center advisory committee said he understood the commissioners' views, but pointed out that not having a liquor license may affect the center's financial stability.

"I understand the concern, and this is a discussion the advisory board has had, because it comes down to moral versus what's allowable under the law. We feel that in order for us to continue to be financially stable, if we're going to be asked to do the things the board has asked us in terms of showing a profit or breaking even, we're going to need that," he said.

Williamson said he hoped to work out a solution that would be both morally acceptable and mutually beneficial to everyone involved. It may eventually be possible to obtain a liquor license without having it in the county's name, he said.

"If it's legally acceptable to sell beer or alcohol and it's something we can do to enhance the profitability of the building, I'm not sure if I'm totally against that, because it's a conscious decision to buy it or not. We're just providing the service," he said.

Some of the events currently booked at the center would require a liquor license, and the county may have to offer refunds to those parties, Williamson said.

Operating without the ability to allow alcohol at functions may make it more difficult for the center to be profitable, County Manager Mike Aldridge warned commissioners.

"Now, we've just run a business out of this county, basically, because profitability, profitability, profitability. Now if you're not going to take a stance to maximize profit, then why did we run them out of business? They were doing all the things that they could," he said.

"It was certainly not profitability, because they were not profitable," Fussell responded.

"Well, the next one's not going to be, either, without that ability, I can tell you. Even with it, they're not going to be. That's my prediction, anyway. I don't see there's a whole lot of room to wriggle on that discussion," Aldridge said.

The board voted to maintain as temporary employees two current staff members who work at the center. They will maintain the same salary, but will not receive benefits. The two staff members of the center will continue to run the building and prepare for events that are already scheduled for upcoming months.

Additionally, the commissioners also got a look at what North Carolina state legislators might have in store for the upcoming session that could affect county governments' 2010-11 budgets. David Thompson, executive director of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, updated board members on some of the decisions that could soon come into play at the local level.

Last year, Gov. Beverly Perdue held back funding in order to cover the state's budget shortfall during one of the worst recessions in the country's history. This year, the state revenue is only about $45 million off instead of the greater sum that it lacked last year.

"That's really good," Thompson said.

However, sales taxes are off by 11 percent, and withholding from income taxes is down due to unemployment, he said.

"The big concern is that we will have a bad, what everybody in Raleigh calls an April surprise. When April 15 income taxes are due, and it takes them four to five weeks to add it all up, but the real concern in the state budget for this current year is if we have a bad April surprise," Thompson said.

Because the withholding tax collection is down, it is likely that income tax collection will be down this year, too, he said.

And there are still many bills that could be brought before the House or Senate during the short session that could affect county governments. The general assembly's short session begins on May 12.