City to form Civic Center committee

ALBANY -- City leaders are considering developing a seven-person committee to examine the rates and fees for use of the Albany Civic Center and Albany Municipal Auditorium to see if they may be too high, officials say.

Approved at Tuesday's work session, the measure would create a committee of appointees of the city commission that would "review the situation and develop action recommendations," according to information presented to commissioners.

From a financial standpoint, both facilities are far from self-sustaining with the city budgeting more than $1.2 million annually for the Civic Center and more than $56,000 for operations at the auditorium.

But despite the taxpayer subsidies, some city officials believe that the rates to rent both facilities put them out of reach for smaller organizations. Some believe the rates should be lowered -- even it increases the city's financial obligation -- so that the facilities are used more often.

Tuesday, four options were presented to the commission by city staff.

The first was to leave the rates unchanged and "stay the course." The benefit to that option, according to city staff, is that equity in event administration stays in place and the focus on recouping as many losses as possible stays fixed. The cons to this plan are that it doesn't address the numerous complaints received about the rates and could reduce the number of rental days.

Option two would set up and fund some type of annual competitive event assistance process that would allow for non-profit or other event organizers to compete for funding similar to the existing competitive arrangement for community development funds. The pro is that each entity can make its case annually for funding assistance, with the con being the actual funding of the assistance and deciding on who would administer those funds.

Option three would develop a request for proposals for one or both of the facilities to be privately managed. According to city staff, smaller markets like Albany are not desirable for private companies and the city would have to relinquish full rights and controls.

Speaking in support of the committee option, Mayor Willie Adams said that naming a group to examine the issue is a good idea.

"I support that option because it gets the community involved," Adams said. "Both of these venues are a community service that we provide."

The fees have come under increased scrutiny as complaints continue to mount about the affordability of the venues for smaller organizations who are suffering during the economic downturn.

"The majority of the complaints appear to come from those wanting to use the auditorium," Assistant City Manager Wes Smith said. "The smaller groups and nonprofits that are wanting to host pageants and plays and the like."

"People just don't seem to realize that on average for a small play it costs us around $3,500," Smith said.

But the affordability issue isn't limited to just smaller groups. The city got a taste of the rate issue when the banquet for the annual Quail Unlimited event, which is touted by local officials as a major economic boon to the area, moved from the Civic Center two years ago to take advantage of more affordable facilities at Darton College.

While other political factors may have entered into that decision, ultimately it resulted in what many on the commission fear will happen -- the loss of quality events and two facilities that sit largely dormant.

"The bottom line is that the commission is weighing taking on the additional costs of lower rates in exchange for booking more events and providing more opportunities in Albany," Smith said.