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Civic Center loses major customers
City hopes for decent returns on aquatic center
The Gainesville Civic Center recently has lost some of its regular meeting clients. - photo by Tom Reed

If anyone wonders why meeting rooms at Gainesville’s Civic Center will be quiet on Mondays and Tuesdays, the answer is money.

Two civic groups are taking their weekly business elsewhere at a loss of nearly $20,000 to the center. That adds to the troubling financial times for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Although government groups and businesses hold regular meetings at the Civic Center, the civic clubs were, by far, the center’s most frequent customers.

All local civic organizations except Jaycees held weekly meetings at the center until December.
“The civic clubs are our major customers there,” Parks Director Melvin Cooper said.

But between December and January, two of the city’s top civic groups pulled out. The Rotary Club was the first to go, moving its weekly meetings to the First Baptist Church banquet hall in early December.

Rotary president Douglas Langman said the club moved its meetings because the “state-of-the-art” audio-visual equipment in the new church banquet hall was “far superior” to the Civic Center’s 18-year-
old system.

The Civic Center would have installed a new sound system this year, but in the face of tough economic times, the department halted a planned $75,000 upgrade, Cooper said.

The Civic Center has been a “fantastic host,” Langman said, but since guests and speakers often use technology in their presentations, the club opted for the newer facility.

“It wasn’t a financial decision; it was just the resources that are available to our members and our speakers, our presenters (at First Baptist Church),” Langman said.The initial impact of losing the Rotary Club was a $15,000 loss in revenue, Cooper said, but the ripple effect packed an extra punch.

Once Rotary left the Civic Center, Longstreet Cafe stopped catering for the remaining clubs after 12 years of doing so.

Longstreet Cafe owner Tim Bunch said losing Rotary’s business — almost half of his daytime catering business — was coupled with the loss of a longtime staffer essential to providing the service. Because the Civic Center charges a 15 percent fee to caterers, Bunch said providing the usually cheaper lunch events in the Civic Center was no longer practical for him.

He has decided to focus on running his two restaurants.

“We’re busy enough here in the store that I’d much rather concentrate the main effort (here),” Bunch said. “... We’ll do some catering, but we’ll be real selective in what we do.”

Bunch notified the Lions and Kiwanis, the two clubs still holding lunch meetings at the Civic Center, that he would stop serving after the first week of February.

The change sent the clubs scrambling for a catering service that would serve them at a similar price. It was no easy task, said Sandi Simpson, president of Gainesville’s Kiwanis Club.

Without Longstreet offering a $10-per-head lunch and no other options at the same price, the Kiwanis moved its meetings to the Elks Lodge.

The move hit the Civic Center with another $4,500 loss, but Simpson said the club had no choice.
“For us it more or less came down to a financial decision,” Simpson said. “... Longstreet leaving is really what put us in the position to have to make a decision, and it had come down to finances. He (Bunch) was giving us a tremendous deal.”

Keeping Kiwanis meetings at the Civic Center with another caterer would have cost the club significantly more and could have led to higher membership dues, Simpson said.

“When you’re dealing with 100 people per week, on average, for meals 50 weeks a year, you know, a dollar or two per week in costs per person can really add up,” Simpson said.

Although the Kiwanis and Lions shared a caterer for both clubs’ Tuesday meetings, Lions meetings will stay at the Civic Center, for now, club president Jim Schwartz said.

The Lions Club is looking for another caterer to serve its meetings at the Civic Center even if it does cost more, Schwartz said.

“We don’t have any desire to leave. I mean, they’ve been great to us,” Schwartz said.

Yet even the Lions have a price ceiling. If catering at the Civic Center proves too expensive for the group, it, too, will have to go elsewhere, cutting another $1,100 in revenues for the city.

“We couldn’t pay a lot; we may be forced to move, but right now we’re going to try our dead level best to stay,” Schwartz said.

The Civic Center usually does not hold its own financially, but this year may be even tougher.

On top of the loss of club gatherings, an attorney who rented a third-floor office for $16,000 also moved out, Parks and Recreation Department deputy director Michael Graham said.

Adding to the financial woes, the slumping economy hit in December when many of the usual holiday parties were not booked and others canceled, Graham said.

Last year, the Civic Center earned $405,684. After the first six months of fiscal year 2009, the parks department expects revenues of $292,500.

In hard times, it may be the new Frances Meadows Aquatic and Community Center that keeps the department’s head above water this fiscal year.

Despite the winter closure of the aquatic center’s outdoor Splash Zone, it is earning revenues above expectations, Graham said.

In its first four months, the aquatic center has taken in 37.4 percent of its projected annual revenue, and sales for annual passes and concessions are nearly double the amount expected, according to numbers Graham provided.

Graham and Cooper both expect revenues for the Meadows center to increase significantly when the Splash Zone opens in May; 40 percent of the aquatic center’s budget relies on the outdoor season. But until then, Graham said he hopes the economy will turn around soon and give the Civic Center a much needed boost.

“If there’s an upturn in the economy that will help in picking up rentals for (the Civic Center),” Graham said.