Members of the Oneonta City Council and the Blount County Commission met in a joint work session last Tuesday to discuss the immediate and long-range future of the Blount County-Oneonta Agri-Business Center as a county institution.
The meeting was the culmination of several years of effort on the part of the city, county, and Agri-Business Center Board to discover a financial and operational formula that would enable the center to operate consistently in the black (or at least to break even) without the need of periodic subsidies from the city and county, which jointly own the facility. (Professional data on financial performance of such agriculture/expo centers indicates that they are not profit makers and should not be managed with that expectation.)
The more immediate trigger for the meeting was the report of an expo center consultant, delivered earlier this year and outlining the costs associated with closing or continuing to operate the center – either on a renovated or new facility basis – in the coming years. The report’s findings on alternatives and their associated costs were as follows:
(1) demolish the building and convert the property to other uses: $100,000 (low range cost) to raze the building, plus the cost to convert property to alternative use(s);
(2) renovate the current building: $3 to $10 million to physically repair and upgrade the building (roof, flooring, seating, possible adaptations for sports/non-ag entertainment, etc.), plus adding digital technology and communications upgrades necessary for the center to remain reasonably competitive among similar centers in the area from a professional event-planning perspective;
(3) build new multi-use exposition center: $3 million to $30 million to build a new up-to-date center of similar size.
The consultant’s report did not include continuing to operate the center on the current strive-to-make-a-profit basis of recent years, although that would seem to be a possible option.
Participants in the discussion included members of the Blount County Commission, members of the Oneonta City Council, and the chairman of the board of directors.
Quoted from consultant’s report:
• typical life span of an expo building is 35 years; Blount County-Oneonta Agri-Business Center was opened in early 1980s, so its current life is between 35 and 40 years.
• report recommends minimum of 50 acres of surrounding property, building size of 15,000 to less than 50,000 square feet, and seating for 5,000; current metrics of Agri-Business Center are 9.2 acres with no room for expansion, 26,500 sq. ft. in size, and seating for 3,000.
Points made in discussion
• a complete update of the building to today’s standards or a complete rebuild is not feasible because of cost and acreage requirements.
• 11 paid events are already set and contracted for 2020, including some of the largest, so center should operate at least through September 2020, when the Blount County Fair, the last scheduled event, concludes.
• eight or more other non-paid recurring county-wide events are also expected to be held, including school-related events, special needs events, and ag education events; some community benefit value needs to be assigned to these events in determining the decision concerning the center.
• if a decision were made to keep the center operating on its current basis without a major capital outlay to renovate or rebuild the building, three initiatives would be required: (1) restructuring the financial and board organization to reflect direct city/county responsibility for operation, (2) creating an advisory board to determine the highest and best use of the building and/or property for all citizens of the county, and (3) committment of the city and county to accept full financial responsibility for the center, including the need to make an annual financial contribution to its operation and reconciling themselves to the fact the center cannot be expected to show a profit, even under professional and aggressive management.
• the county as an entity can’t afford a new expo center – it has too many other major financial projects in progress, but the center is too good and meets too many community needs to tear down; must put a value to community of keeping it, based on important community events for which it provides a no-cost venue.
• the center as it is now has outlived its usefulness, but it occupies extremely valuable property that could be used to meet a burgeoning need for soccer fields and other kids’ sport activities, e.g. travel ball.
• the property could be developed as a soccer and other sports complex of modern fields with lights, bathrooms/ locker rooms, concession stands, fencing, and other amenities to meet the need for activities to keep kids busy and not vulnerable to less healthy pasttimes.
• we should determine the feasibility of expanding and/or reconfiguring the space we’ve got at the center now in order to accommodate additional sports activities while keeping the events that are already held there now.
• we must have a comprehensive plan; we should agree to jointly fund the center for three more years to give us time to study the needs of various stakeholders and develop a comprehensive plan for arriving at the highest and best use for the greatest number of our citizens, consistent with available financial resources.
• citizens are desperate for expansion of multi-use sports venues for their kids.
• regardless of all other discussion, it is imperative that a full-time manager be placed immediately at the center to handle the events that are already contracted for 2020; it is impossible to sustain another season, even a partial one, without an on-site manager to handle unbelievably time- and coordination-intensive periods leading up to major events; must have someone on duty by January; it’s been handled without adequate manpower for going on three years; it’s now an emergency that must be fixed. Summing up
In the waning minutes of the meeting, an informal consensus seemed to coalesce around the following points:
• a manager is needed on the ground at the Agri-Business by the first week in January.
• the city/county group will meet again soon to begin the process of fleshing out details of activities the center will focus on, plan for, and budget for in the short-term; and to consider the need for an advisory task force to project ultimate decision-making for the long-term.
• an advisory task force may be useful to continue the discussion of the future of the center, its mission, its highest and best use, its desired events repertoire, which expo option to pursue, and associated financial management implications for the long-term.
• an operating budget must be prepared for 2020.
• a joint memorandum of understanding must be prepared to characterize the agreement between the city and county on joint management that lives on beyond the elected personnel in place in the city council and the county commission of today.