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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Travis Commissioners postpone vote on Expo Center operations
Friday, February 24, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano
Despite a plea from members of their Facilities Management Department to expand discount provisions for use of the Travis County Exposition Center, the Travis County Commissioners Court elected, unanimously, to delay a vote at least one more week.
Although the proposed changes relate strictly to discounting and return policies at the center, commissioners appeared eager to delve more deeply into the operation of the facility.
“My overriding question is: what is our mission for the Expo Center? Are we looking to provide this facility primarily so that we can discount many, many, many events in service to the community? Or are we looking at a combination so that we ultimately don’t end up on a loss-operating basis?” said Commissioner Karen Huber. “To me, the mission and the policy goals are equally important as the pieces. And what is our business plan?”
“A good business plan, whether it is keeping with the mission, whether it is purely to support the non-profits, or to have a profitable business out there, we need to have a good capital improvements program. We know that we are competing with other facilities… and it’s important that we have a plan that underwrites that, otherwise we are seriously subsidizing a facility,” said Huber.
Facilities Management Director Roger El-Khoury explained that the Expo Center was “on the right track” and currently turning a profit, even with the discounts.
“Overall, Commissioner, let me mention that for the last four years that the Expo Center is completely, completely off subsidy. Everything is supporting itself,” said El-Khoury. “As you can see we are making a profit at only 55 percent, so if we book a little more, we’ll maybe make more profit.”
Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt agreed that things could be more profitable.
“The annual profits for the Expo Center, this is wonderful news, were $79,462. But if you also look at the spreadsheet, you see that reduced $60,875 in fees. For that same year, we only leased 55 percent of capacity, so we could have a much more robust plan at the Expo Center,” said Eckhardt.
The $79,462 profit represents the lowest number in four years, according to an email correspondence between Eckhardt and El-Khoury, which lists the profit for 2008 at $373,881, profit for 2009 at $276,947 and profit for 2010 at $170,701. The annual ongoing costs for each year are at about $1 million.
The email also contained a list of capital costs for the future which totaled $815,000.
Previously, all requests for discounts for rental of the Exposition Center facilities or grounds require approval by the Commissioners Court, and were only offered to governmental or quasi-governmental agencies. Discounts were only available for events held from Monday to Thursday.
The new policy proposed would extend discounts to 501(c)(3) charitable organizations. Discounts offered by the FMD director would no longer require separate approval by the Commissioners Court, provided that they were in compliance with the new policy and were not in excess of $1000, though people who were denied the discount could appeal the decision to Commissioners Court.
Governmental or quasi-governmental agencies and departments would be eligible for a discount of 50 percent. Charitable organizations who had Travis County as its primary service area would be eligible for a 25 percent discount, and those outside of the county a 10 percent one.
The court requested El-Khoury develop a business plan, mission, and calculate labor costs for the facility. They will hear the case again at their next meeting, though Judge Sam Biscoe explained he didn’t need the business plan and mission statement at that time.
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