Civic center continues to trouble council

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 28, 2013

By Richard Meek
Contributing Writer

LAPLACE – St. John Parish the Baptist Parish Council members are continuing to wrestle with the dilemma of management of the civic center, which most agree is being underutilized, especially by local residents and organizations.
Council members heard comments from Jo Banner from the River Parishes Tourism Commission on Tuesday night regarding operation of the facility. The commission manages the civic center and in return is granted office space free of charge.
During a previous meeting council members questioned Banner about what they believe are higher-than-average rental rates for the civic center. Banner presented figures comparing the St. John Civic Center rates to similar facilities in four neighboring communities, including those located in Houma, Slidell, Kenner and Westwego.
“(The chart) outlines our rates compared to theirs,” she said. “In comparing centers, they all have a different pricing structure. Some centers charge for some things, others don’t. It’s kind of hard to pull all together.”
Indeed, the figures Banner presented are wide-ranging, depending on what amenities are being utilized for an event. The St. John Civic Center has a flat rental fee of $6,000 for the entire facility and lesser rates for use of smaller rooms.
That rate does not include any food or beverages or other amenities such as tables and chairs. There is no staffing fee, however, which differs from other facilities.
For example, rental rates at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner, which is a facility several parish organizations have utilized in the past, can range from $1,600 to $3,900, depending on how much room is required. But staffing is extra, at a rate of $16 to $20 per hour, and other fees include housekeeping, amps, facility fee and catering.
“If you look at the charts, although (the St. John facility rate) appears higher, it includes all of the amenities,” Banner said. “When you put all of those prices in we are very much in line from some of the other centers. All have different pricing structure included above room rates.
“Most of them require you to use their exclusive caterer, and they are getting some money off of that. All have different pricing structures included above room rates.”
Council Chair Jaclyn Hotard challenged Banner, saying rental rates at the Pontchartrain Center are decreased or even waived as more services are purchased, such as caterers.
“When we talk you can’t put everything into that one box,” she said. “We just can’t say that they make you buy food. At that point a lot of the other things go down.”
Councilman Larry Snyder questioned the $6,000 fee, saying it “seems like it came off the top of somebody’s head.”
“You start off with $6,000, and you don’t have any chairs,” he said. “It puts some of our people off, especially high schools and people that want to put weddings in there.  
“If I want to have a graduation in there it costs me another $3,000 just for chairs. And tables cost more.”
Parish President Natalie Robottom said the rate to rent the facility was more than $8,000 at one point but has been reduced. She said the civic center rates are already cheaper than its competitors, especially allowing for the fact council members voted to discount the fee by 20 percent to any nonprofit organization in the parish.
“We have to look at some other reason why they are not using our facility,” she said.
Councilman Michael Wright conceded some of the other facilities “have more to offer. Our civic center is more of a warehouse. Some don’t utilize it because of that.”
The civic has become a point of controversy among council members when it was recently revealed that the St. John-based Mardi Gras organization Krewe Du Monde was considering moving its annual ball to the Pontchartrain Center, where it has held its ball in the past.
Hotard has attempted to have the administration advertise for bids for management of the center, just to be able to explore other options. Although her proposal has failed to gain traction among council members concerns remains about the facility not reaching its revenue potential.
Tourism Commission members have vigorously defended their job performance and say they would like to continue the arrangement. Earlier this year the council approved a two-year contract with the commission to operate the center.
“I think it would be in our best interest to come down even more (with rates),” Councilman Lennix Madere said.