08/09/10 — Officials: Center has cost Duplin taxpayers

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Officials: Center has cost Duplin taxpayers

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on August 9, 2010 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- The Duplin County Board of Commissioners has voted unanimously to put Duplin County Events Center Advisory Committee chairman Stephen Williamson in charge of the facility.

Williamson will take over the job vacated several months ago by former management company VenuWorks. The county planned to contract with Canon Consulting for events management and marketing services, but the deal did not go through.

Commissioner David Fussell was on the agenda at the commissioners' meeting to speak about the center's future. Fussell said he asked citizens to provide ideas for alternative purposes for the center, and shared the many different responses with the other commissioners.

Suggestions he reported receiving from residents included using the center as a consolidated office for county government, turning it over to James Sprunt Community College or using it as a gymnasium for a new high school, giving it to a non-profit agency, using it for a new law enforcement center or even using it as a new animal shelter.

Fussell said the county has not made good decisions in managing the center with taxpayer money.

"We have a moral obligation to make sure the funds are well-spent, and we have not been good stewards," he said.

According to records provided by the county financial staff, the center costs Duplin County taxpayers hundreds of dollars a day and lost money on the shows it hosted last year, Fussell said.

Supporters of the center say it is difficult to market the facility to event planners when it has developed a poor reputation. Events Center Advisory Committee Vice Chairwoman Joann Stroud asked the commissioners to offer support beyond monetary contributions to the center, and later spoke about why that support is necessary.

"We're asking for people to please not badmouth the center. You can take a word and start a war. (We) just ask for something besides negatism from our county commissioners. Mr. Fussell uses his power as a county commissioner to convince people that it's a dead thing. All he wants to do is see it buried, and he has fought us tooth and nail since the beginning," Mrs. Stroud said. "All we ask for is some support from the citizens in a positive way. Nothing can move forward and reach its goal if everybody is saying negative things about it."

The suggestions presented at the meeting were without foresight to the county's future, she said.

The center has brought positive things to Duplin County since it was constructed, too, Mrs. Stroud said.

"It brings people into our county when we have a big event. Our hotels fill up, our restaurants are full, they can't even seat everybody who comes in. And even though the events center didn't make money, the people, the businesses in the county make plenty of money, and when the businesses in the county make money, they stay open. It keeps the county more viable, they pay taxes, and that's what I'm saying. Everything that's successful, you can't put a dollar sign on it, because anything that brings people to our county that spends money is successful," she said.

The commissioners agreed to the idea of meeting with the advisory board to discuss options for managing the Events Center.

Fussell said he would like to see the county take a business approach to managing the center, and take taxpayers' thoughts into account on the matter.

"Is this loss, is this cost acceptable? If it is, OK. If it isn't, let's find something else to do with it," he said.