Council debates civic center usage

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 14, 2013

By Richard Meek
Contributing Writer

LAPLACE – There appears to be a general consensus among parish officials that the St. John Civic Center is underutilized, especially by local residents.
But St. John the Baptist Parish Council members are split on the solution. Council Chair Jaclyn Hotard is floating an idea of having management companies submit bids to take over operation of the facility, which would include marketing strategies. She says the parish would not be committed to accept any bid but submittal and analysis of proposals would give council members a better idea of “what’s out there” and perhaps gain insight as to how the 7-year-old facility could be more effectively managed.
“When we ask for proposals we may see that none of the proposals fit what we’re looking to do,” she said during the council meeting Tuesday night. “We’re not bound by anything, but we won’t know unless we look at it. It could be something profitable.”
But Hotard’s proposal was immediately met with opposition by council members, who are in favor of maintaining the current setup whereby the facility is managed by the River Parishes Tourism Commission in exchange for being able to maintain an office there at no cost.
“I understand what you want to do, but I’m not in favor or removing the commission,” council member Marvin Perrilloux said. “The last meeting we had a lengthy discussion about what we want (the commission) to do for proms, weddings, Mardi Gras balls. Now I want to give them a chance to shop the building, shop the community. I’m not ready to replace them at all.”
The civic center was the focus of a lengthy discussion during an August council meeting when it was disclosed that the LaPlace-based Krewe of DuMonde was reportedly considering changing the venue of its annual ball from the civic center to the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner, where some past balls have been held. Although some council members attempted to dance around the DuMonde issue, others, including Parish President Natalie Robottom, were adamant the carnival’s organization was the catalyst for the debate, which at times turned heated.
As a result, the council during that meeting approved reducing the $6,000 rental fee by 20 percent for parish nonprofit agencies including DuMonde, which is sponsored by the LaPlace Lions Club.
Earlier in June the council voted to give the tourism commission a two-year contract to manage the facility.
“We need to allow the decision made at (a) previous meeting to stand for at least a year,” councilman Lennix Madere said Tuesday. “We just put something in place. Give them the opportunity to grow with it.”
Much of the discussion Tuesday night centered on the rate structure and what can be done to attract local organizations to rent the facility. Madere said he would call similar facilities in neighboring parishes to gather information about rates for comparative purposes, and when told that he would not likely receive that information, he said he would say he was booking the event.
Paul Aucoin, chairman of the tourist commission board, said the board has been operating the center for the past four to six years and calls the arrangement a “win-win for the parish and commission. We think we’ve done a good job.”
Jo Banner, communications director for the tourist commission, said the center has hosted one wedding, several school functions and some commercial shoots this year.
But Aucoin admitted the commission was not comfortable with setting the rate structure, saying, “It’s the council building. You set the rates, and we’ll enforce it.
“If somebody can explain the advantage to us setting the rates, I’ll be happy to listen,” he said. “If you mandate to us we have to negotiate the rates in order to occupy the building we will. That’s a lose-lose.
“What’s in it for us to do that?”
“A management is in position to set those rates, and they don’t run into those pitfalls,” Hotard said. “I’m not questioning what the commission has done. What I am questioning is we had some issues with renting the building out.
“Let’s look at what other facilities do to enhance with what we do. We have some flaws.”
Aucoin promised to provide the council with some information regarding rate structures and operational procedures from similar civic centers at the next council meeting.
In other news, the council voted to authorize the administration to advertise for bids for the proposed Taste of St. John Food Truck Trailer. Economic development director Torri Buckles said a $215,000 BP grant will pay for the truck and the setup costs, and said the truck will be the cornerstone of a marketing campaign aimed at promoting andouille and Louisiana seafood.
She said local restaurants would be able to use the truck to promote dishes of seafood or andouille at festivals throughout Louisiana. Buckles informed council members the truck will be driven by a parish employee.
In response to a question from Hotard asking if the truck would interfere with food vendors at the Andouille Festival, Buckles said, “I can’t answer that.” But she said the truck would not be ready until 2014.
Robottom said the truck, or possibly a trailer, will be equipped to allow restaurant personnel to cook their specialty dishes on site.
Robottom said the grant is limited to businesses and not individuals, with the goal of “trying to get people back on their feet, especially those who were impacted by the oil spill.”
The council also approved an amendment that extends the deadline for payment of utilities bills from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. and allow the parish to reconnect residents who pay for their bill within working hours.
The parish is also going to implement a $25 fee for NSF checks.