Council seeks solution to civic center catch-22

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 26, 2011



LAPLACE – St. John the Baptist Parish Council members on Tuesday renewed an ongoing discussion with administrators regarding rental availability at the St. John Community Center and when it might be open for public use again.

The 47,000-square-foot civic center has been off limits to residents since March 2010, when the Delta Blues Production Co. entered into a lease with the parish to use the building as a soundstage for the TNT crime drama “Memphis Beat.” Councilman-at-Large Raydel Morris said he has been receiving several calls recently about when the building will be reopened to residents.

“I know we are getting revenue from the production company, but this building is for our residents, and they want to use it,” Morris said. “I just want to see what we can do to work with both sides.”

St. John Chief Administrative Officer Marie Brown-Mercadel said the production company has a lease on the building through June with an option to extend for an additional six months if the show is renewed for a third season. She said the company pays $30,000 per month when the crew is in town filming and $15,000 per month for storage of set pieces and equipment.

“For all of 2010, the building received about $213,000 in rental fees,” Mercadel said. “More than $207,000 of that came from the production company. After taking out utilities and building fees, there is an excess of $49,000 coming in to the civic center. It is beneficial to the parish as long as we can rent it out.”

Councilman Haston Lewis said he is glad the building is making money but not satisfied with “stuck with the situation.”

“The council and the parish needs to come together to devise a plan to fill the civic center that pleases residents,” Lewis said. “If residents cannot use it, it puts good money out with the bad.”

Councilwoman Jaclyn Hotard agreed with Lewis and referenced a clause in rental contracts that allows the parish to cancel an event 30 days prior to the event date if a film production comes along wanting to use the building.

“If a film or show comes to town, you have to be forced out,” Hotard said. “I don’t want to roll the dice on the luck of getting another production company.”

Since its opening in 2006, the civic center has struggled to be a profitable undertaking for the parish. The $7 million construction price tag was $2 million over the estimated budget, and the parish has often had a hard time finding clients who can afford to rent the building. In addition to rental fees, the building recieves about $130,000 annually from state appropriated hotel/ motel taxes to supplement the budget.

Some council members have raised questions about selling off the building to outside sources, but Parish President Natalie Robottom said that might not be possible since construction was paid for with tax exempt bonds that cannot be passed on to a private owner.

Robottom said the parish has been lucky to land production companies, who have always been pleasd with the size and design of the building, but said it is also important to make the civic center available to community events.

“We want to do what we can to leave the building vacant for proms and Mardi Gras balls and other community events,” Robottom said.