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Task force issues suggestions

ALBANY, Ga. -- City officials have released a preliminary draft report issued by a citizens task force that includes certain recommendations overhauling Albany Civic Center and Albany Municipal Auditorium policies and promotions.

Prompted mostly by citizen complaints, the commission formed the seven-member group in February and tasked them with examining issues surrounding rates for the Civic Center and the auditorium, direct event costs and availability of use and to make recommendations on how to improve service.

Five meetings later, city staff now have a draft copy of the report and recommendations. That list was given to Albany City Commissioners this week.

According to that report, which was made available upon reque

st to The Herald Thursday, the committee generally had favorable findings in terms of the usage of the Civic Center and auditorium, but did make several specific recommendations designed to increase traffic for both facilities.

For the Civic Center, the committee recommended that city staff work with the Dougherty County School System to revive at least one holiday basketball tournament to be held around Thanksgiving.

The committee estimated the cost of that tournament to be around $10,000, but said that because of the popularity of basketball in Southwest Georgia and the success of similar tournaments held in the past, that it would a good opportunity to draw more people to the venue.

While the committee didn't recommend an accompanying Christmas tournament, they stated that "it sees real opportunity in that option as well."

The group found that the Civic Center's rate structure appeared reasonable, except for use of its meeting rooms, which they said appeared to be too high.

The committee recommended that city leaders lower the rental price to attract additional customers.

The committee also recommended the creation of two pilot programs for the auditorium.

The first would be a partnership with the Albany Area Arts Council to make the auditorium more accessible to the general public by chronicling its history into tours one day per month. Volunteers would give scheduled tours of the facility and give the history behind its unique architecture and past events, the report states.

Additionally, the committee recommended a pilot program they believe would increase use of the facility by local non-profit and community groups by offering reduced rates.

While the concept has yet to be refined, the principle would mirror a program currently used by the city's community development department which makes a limited amount of funding available for groups who then have to apply through a competitive process to gain access to the funds.

According to the recommendation, groups would propose a one-day show at the auditorium for a flat rate of $1,000. Space at the auditorium for the shows would be allotted up to six times per year.

Since the bill for an average single-show production is roughly $4,000 according to the committee, the city would have to increase the auditorium's $57,000 budget by $18,000 to compensate for the program.

The program would be limited to one-time users.

Assistant City Manager Wes Smith -- who oversees operations of the Civic Center director and has taken a more active role in operations since Director John Mazzola left last month to take a job in Dodge City, Kan. -- said that he feels the recommendations are smart, viable options to increase usage of both facilities.

"Frankly, the basketball idea was fantastic," Smith said. "In the past, the Civic Center would be packed with fans to watch these teams play.

Who knows? It could turn into a regional tournament where other counties come in and play as well."

Smith said that he agrees with the recommendation to cut the rental fees for the Civic Center's three meeting rooms and plans to pitch them as possible venues for community and civic groups looking for a place to meet downtown.

But as the 27-year-old Civic Center ages and critics contend that the commission continues to throw money at something city leaders admit isn't capable of being self sustaining, the chorus of criticism has grown about whether the city should remain in the entertainment business at all.

Smith acknowledges the criticism and points to the report as showing that the committee did too, but he also just as readily points to the current stats that show for the current fiscal year, projections are that the Civic Center and auditorium will end the year on June 30 up more than $100,000.

"One thing the committee acknowledged was dead on and that is that the era of those type of facilities is largely gone," Smith said. "Other, larger types of venues are the ones that attract the events that let you make money. For the city, operating the Civic Center and auditorium are a quality-of-life issue."

The recommendations are just the first of many possible changes ahead for the two venues, Smith said.

City staff are working to recruit a new director and are looking at ways to continue to make operating the venues more efficient.

For example, Smith pointed to the Civic Center's daily operating costs as one of the biggest challenges to self-sustainability.

To that end, city staffers are researching the feasibility of installing solar panels on the roof of the Civic Center to deflate energy costs that top $500-per-day, or $180,000 per year.

Smith said that preliminary estimates are that the energy bill would be cut by half through the use of the green energy, but on the flip side of the argument, installation of solar cells would cost upwards of $700,000.

Smith said that while the city has access to $700,000 worth of stimulus money meant for green energy improvements, it's unclear whether the commission would want to spend the money on the solar cells.

The commission will also likely revisit implementing a citizen's advisory committee that would keep an eye on Civic Center operations and make recommendations throughout the year to the commission.