03/17/10 — Duplin eyes ending contract early

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Duplin eyes ending contract early

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on March 17, 2010 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County might seek to save money by ending its contract with outgoing Duplin Events Center management company VenuWorks as quickly as possible.

The company's contract with the county is set to expire by the first of July, but Stephen Williamson, chairman of the center's advisory board, told commissioners Monday that the county could save money by pursuing another option to end the contract even earlier.

The commissioners did not choose to extend the contract, and VenuWorks officials said the company made a business decision not to seek a new contract with the county.

Williamson and other advisory board members have met with county officials and VenuWorks staff to begin planning the transition process, he said.

"Initially, our thing was let's make this as quick as possible, get VenuWorks out, save some money that we've been paying them for their administrative fee," Williamson said.

After getting a look at the steps that must be taken to make the transition happen, the officials and board members realized the process will be complicated. However, the advisory board chairman was able to offer commissioners a proposal that would end the management contract by May 31, saving a month's worth of administrative fees. Another possibility the commissioners could explore is to invoke the 90-day "out" in the contract, which would end the contract by roughly the second or third week in June.

On Williamson's request, Chairman Cary Turner and Commissioners Frances Parks and Reginald Wells volunteered to meet with the advisory board to determine the best course of action.

Williamson spoke optimistically about the future of the event center.

"I think we've got a unique opportunity. We've had a lot of discussions in the past about how we want to move forward, but our hands have been tied. At this point, our hands are untied," he said.

And the center has the chance to bring money in to local businesses, such as restaurants and hotels, Williamson added.

However, at the moment the advisory board chairman is not sure how much it will cost the county to run the center in the immediate future.

"I don't know where, at this point, how much money it's going to take us to get through to the end of the contract with VenuWorks. I'd like to say we've got enough, but I'm not going to say that," Williamson said.

The board will have to examine the expenses on a monthly basis and decide how to handle the expenses over the next several months, he said.

Williamson reported that the board members also felt VenuWorks officials' decision to lay off two of the center employees was preemptive until a decision about the center's future is made, and after discussing the matter with VenuWorks, the company agreed to reinstate one of the employees.

At this point, the center has about $10,000 left from the $30,000 the commission voted earlier this month to advance to the center in order to pay its bills. The $10,000 on hand also came in part from money collected from shows, with roughly $20,000 more expected to come in between now and June. The "bread and butter" events at the center tend to be wedding receptions and quinceaneras, Williamson said.

"There's a lot of good community support for those type of things from everybody," he said.

Commissioner David Fussell thanked the board for looking toward the future.

"I think you're moving in the right direction," he said.

However, Fussell said that based on financial records from the center, and according to his calculations, it is costing county taxpayers more than $1,500 a day to run the center. That figure included the more than $570,000 debt service for the entire Duplin Commons, and the expenses involved with putting on shows.

And the center reportedly lost nearly $50,000 solely on shows between July 1 to February 30, Fussell said.

"The actual revenue from events was $214,789, that's the revenue from the events. The actual cost, not overhead, but the actual cost of putting on these events was $261,876," he said.

Fussell asked Williamson and the advisory board to verify those figures to determine if they were accurate.

"Let's make sure as we move forward that we are generating revenue from those events," he said.

The two boards should work together to address the issues and create a business plan "that is acceptable to the citizens of Duplin County and acceptable to all members of this board, and then let's put, I agree with you, now's the time to do that, let's put a positive face on it and do whatever is necessary to do to make this thing successful," Fussell said.

Commissioner Wells agreed that the board should move forward with the event center, although in the past comments from commissioners may have damaged the facility's image, he said.

"I think there has to be not just lip service from this board, but heart and gut commitment to this thing. I think a lot of times we send mixed signals about things from this platform. If we're going to be committed to it, as a commissioner I can't come back to a meeting next week and blast you publicly and keep hammering on it," Wells said.

The commissioners did not discuss any potential new management company for the center at the meeting.