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Committees move Expo Center forward

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Wilson County Ag and Budget Committees approved by unanimous votes Monday night to send two resolutions regarding two separate funding mechanisms for the proposed Expo Center to the full commission.

If the resolutions pass by the required two-thirds majority, or 17 votes, at the Dec. 16 meeting of the commission, then they will go to the General Assembly for approval.

The first resolution would authorize the county commission to raise the hotel/motel tax up to 3 percent if needed. County Attorney Mike Jennings said the amount could always be lowered later.

The second resolution, which generated a lot of discussion, was brought by District 17 Commissioner Gary Keith and would add a $1 ticket fee per person on any event that charges admission at the James A. Ward Agricultural Center.

Proceeds from the ticket fee would go to pay for the construction of the Expo Center, as well as for operating costs.

District 6 Commissioner Kenny Reich seconded the motion, and said, “There would be no exceptions. If an event charges admission, they pay the $1 ticket fee per person, except for the Festival of Lights and that would be a $1 per car fee.”

Reich said he didn’t care whether the event organizers decided to add the fee to their existing ticket prices or take it out of their current proceeds and leave the ticket prices as is.

The fee would apply to the Wilson County Fair, as well. President of Wilson County Promotions Hale Moss told the commissioners present that the fee would generate about $200,000 each year.

 Moss explains amount

Following the meeting, individuals contacted The Wilson Post and asked about the approximately 300,000 additional individuals listed as attendees most years at the fair.

Moss told The Post Tuesday morning that the other 300,000 includes vendors, volunteers, mid-way and other attractions’ employees, as well as those under the age of 5 for whom attendance is free.

“Our paid attendance is only about 40 percent of what our calculated attendance is,” Moss said. “That’s always been a question. If this goes into effect, we may change the way we report attendance.”

Moss added, that only way to have a “true, uncalculated attendance is if you have turn-styles.” The method used by Wilson County Promotions is based on an industry formula they picked up from another fair that allows them to track the growth of attendees, be they paying individuals, vendors, attractions or volunteers.

“It’s a promotional thing. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “It helps us gauge the kind of attractions that you can draw. We’re not a state fair venue, but by having all those extra things factored into the attendance, you have an idea of how many people you’re actually dealing with.”

The head of the 34th largest fair in the United States added that the $200,000 is “a ballpark figure,” and that organizers can “absolutely” give an accurate account of how many paid tickets are purchased.

“Every gate is audited every night, so we know how many tickets are sold at each gate by the ticket rolls that come off of that,” Moss said. “Plus, we have separate accounting for the season ticket purchases.”

 Other action

In other action, the Public Works Committee approved the plans presented by Mike Manous of Manous Design, the architectural firm that has designed the Expo Center.

Via a PowerPoint presentation, Manous showed the commissioners the different configurations of how the main hall in the 86,000-square-foot building could be utilized for corporate dinners, concerts, graduations, basketball games, trade shows and other events.

Michele Hill, executive director of Empower Me Day Camp, also addressed the commission. The plans for the Expo Center include permanent office space for the not-for-profit entity established in 1999 for the benefit of empowering children with disabilities.

The organization currently uses facilities at the Ward Ag Center for its annual summer camp and other year-round events led by therapists, teachers and college students pursuing a healthcare or special education career.

Since its inception, Empower Me Day Camp has served thousands of children ages 5-21 with any type of physical, developmental or mental disability.

Hill told the commissioners that the non-profit was willing to commit $500,000 toward the building of the Expo Center in exchange for a long-term lease.

In addition, she said if approved, Empower Me would seek funding to build $1.5 million state-of-the-art activity area, including a specially designed splash pad, which could draw regional and state tournaments for different activities involving disabled youth.

 Additional scenarios for income/loss projections

Before the votes were taken, Ag Committee member Rusty Thompson presented three additional scenarios regarding projected net operating income and losses based on the information presented by the Middle Tennessee State University Business and Economic Research Center (BERC) last week.

Thompson said that using the same projected 10 percent, paid facility utilization rate showed by the BERC study, but reducing the number of employees hired to three, the Expo Center could yield a net operating income of $400,646 the first year.

He presented two other scenarios that showed net operating income of $463,128 with four employees, but an increase of the paid facility utilization to 14 percent, which he said was the equivalent of one major event such as the National Junior High Rodeo Association slated to come in 2016 and 2017.

The third scenario showed a paid facility utilization rate of 20 percent and an increase in the number full-time employees to five. However, it showed a net operating income of $640,547.

All of the scenarios are based solely on the projected paid facility utilization as indicated by the results of the local survey of businesses conducted by MTSU. They do not include any of the current events held at the Ag Center.

Larry Tomlinson, director of the Ag Center, said of the current usage, “Out of 365 days, we’ve had 351 with something going on at the Ag Center. It would have been 352 except they had to cancel the City of Lebanon Fourth of July fireworks.”

He also noted that the Ag Center has had to turn away several potential events because the required enclosed space needed is not available.

However, both he and Thompson noted that the success of the Expo Center will depend heavily on it being properly marketed to potential users, as well as professional management to keep costs down.

Correspondent Amelia Morrison Hipps may be contacted at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com.

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Expo Center, Wilson County Budget and Ag Committees
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