Underutilized Attraction: St. John Civic Center troubles tied to setup, not marketing

Published 12:03 am Wednesday, September 21, 2016

LAPLACE — Sound studio or a severely underutilized community center?

For the past several years, St. John the Baptist Parish Council members have grappled with that vexing question concerning the use of LaPlace’s St. John the Baptist Parish Community Center — also known as the Civic Center.

Council members have repeatedly vented their frustration while watching high schools, carnival krewes and other events leave the parish for greener event pastures elsewhere, most notably the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner.

Meanwhile, the 42,000-square foot St. John Civic Center, which opened in 2006, has morphed into a sound stage for the film industry, which boomed post-Katrina but could potentially be threatened by the state’s drastic reduction in tax credits.

Councilwoman Jaclyn Hotard said the facility’s current usage is not her “vision” for what she had in mind for the center.

Council members have expressed similar concerns and have questioned what they perceive as expensive rental rates for nonprofit organizations and residents of the parish.

Seemingly at a crossroads, the civic center’s future may soon be determined.

During a 45-minute workshop focused strictly on the center, Council members recently expressed their feelings toward what they believed was a lack of a concentrated marketing effort by the River Parishes Tourist Commission, which is the marketing arm for St. Charles, St. John and St. James parishes.

The Council was prepared to authorize the parish to solicit proposals for the operations and marketing of the civic center.

“Let’s test the market,” Hotard said. “It will not cost us anything to put it out (for bid). We might find someone to bring something new to the table. We need to at least see what’s out there.”

But the Council’s mood was much more conciliatory after it was revealed the center, although large in size, has many design flaws that make landing events such as graduations, carnival balls, large weddings and other special events unlikely.

Jo Banner, River Parishes Tourist Commission film coordinator, explained to Council members the facility lacked such amenities as sufficient meeting rooms, aesthetics, lack of breakout rooms, lack of a commercial kitchen, a room divider that is not sound proof, rooms that are too large for smaller scale events and a lack of essential items such as corporate-style tables and chairs.

Contrary to what Council members suggested, Banner countered that the commission does market the civic center as an event venue and not just as a sound stage.

She said discounted rates have been established for parish residents, schools and nonprofit organizations. Banner also pointed out the St. John facility faces formidable competition from similar facilities in surrounding areas, especially in Luling, Kenner, New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

“The problem I’m seeing is an infrastructure problem,” she told Council members. “It’s not made for events you are talking about.”

She presented the Council with a detailed analysis comparing the St. John Civic Center to industry standards as determined by the National Institute of Building Sciences, highlighting where the center falls short. As an example, she said the center has one meeting room that will comfortably seat 20, 25 uncomfortably.

She said the typical conference center has at least five meeting rooms with removable panels and two rooms able to accommodate 120 people.

“The No. 1 factor when people are deciding (where to stage an event) is meeting space,” she said. “The No. 1 reason planners do not choose a venue is because of no meeting rooms. Breakout rooms are essential. We get a lot of (inquiries) but we don’t meet their minimum requests.”

Regarding the potential of hosting car shows, or gun shows, as suggested by Councilman Larry Snyder, Banner pointed out the facility lacks necessary parking.

After Banner’s presentation, dialogue among Council members shifted from what was perceived as a lack of marketing to deciding how to address the center’s limitations and how the facility should be positioned for the future.

“What do we want to do?” Hotard asked her colleagues, wondering if the facility would become a fulltime movie facility or should necessary changes be made so it can become the multi-purpose facility envisioned when approved by voters more than a decade ago.

“We need to take a long, hard look,” she added. “What do we want to do with the building? It can’t function as both.”

Councilman Lennix Madere Jr. said marketing is not the culprit but the facility’s own shortcomings are to blame for the inactivity.

“We have a very large building, larger than (a similar facility) in St. Charles Parish, and we use it less than St. Charles,” he said. “Our building should be big enough to do whatever you want to do. We need to improve the facility. We have to make sure we can utilize the building before we market it.”

Council members also expressed concern that if the movie industry slumps in Louisiana the civic center will become even more underutilized.

Parish President Natalie Robottom suggested a committee be formed to explore potential uses, funding sources and discuss what the building should ultimately become.

During the finance committee meeting, which immediately followed the workshop, Council members voted to take up Robottom’s suggestion and form a committee.

— By Richard Meek