Private Iowa firm to take over running convention center

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 13, 2001

[04/13/01] The City of Vicksburg turned over management and operations of its $13 million convention center Thursday to an Iowa-based company.

After three months of negotiations, the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved a five-year contract with Compass Facility Management Inc. It becomes effective Monday.

Mayor Robert Walker said the private management company would enhance the downtown facility that opened in 1997 as his present four-year term began. It has not performed as expected to offset operational costs.

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“We view this as a great day for our city,” Walker said.

Under terms of the 29-page document, negotiated privately, the city will pay Compass $8,333 a month and continue to supplement the operational budget shortfalls. In turn, the management company will be responsible for marketing, scheduling, annual budgets, concessions, maintenance, staffing and other areas of operation for the facility.

The contract also includes an incentive clause for Compass based on attendance, operating losses, usage, city satisfaction and hotel occupancy in the city. If the company meets certain goals set by the city each year, Compass could receive up to an additional $30,000 a year.

The company will also be eligible for an increase in its fee based on the Consumer Price Index of up to 3 percent provided the facility shows an increase in business of 5 percent each year.

South Ward Alderman Sam Habeeb said he hoped better management through the company would lead to a reduction in the city’s supplement of the facility.

“I’m glad that we have finally gotten to this point,” Habeeb said.

Compass is the contract manager for six facilities in the Midwest, including one in Davenport, Iowa, that city officials visited during the selection process.

Compass president Steven Peters said he had agreed to work exclusively for Vicksburg in this region by not taking on another facility within a 125-mile radius of the city. Peters also said no one should look for the financial situation of the center to improve overnight.

“We look at this as an honor that Vicksburg has placed its trust in our company,” he said.

The convention center was intended eventually to be completely funded by a 2 percent tax on rooms rented by the night in Vicksburg along with revenue generated by rentals, food and beverage fees.

In this fiscal year, officials expect income from the center along with the tax to provide only about half the facility’s $870,000 budget, meaning a general fund subsidy of $408,840.

The management company will be required to turn in a business plan and a budget to the city each year. Both will be subject to the approval of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

“This is something we feel really needs to be done to continue to make Vicksburg a destination,” said North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young.

Larry Gawronski, the Vicksburg Convention Center’s first executive director, is now director of venue development at Compass. He said he is pleased to be working in Vicksburg again.

“I feel like we’re family and that challenges me to do the best job possible,” Gawronski said.

The City of Vicksburg has the right to cancel the contract at any time by providing Compass a 180-day written notice.

City officials pointed out that Norman Ford, who has been running the center since Patricia Cato resigned in June, has made progress in marketing the center, including the creation of a brochure, a television commercial and magazine ads.

Ford is one of about 10 employees at the center Compass has agreed to retain. Effective May 2, the workers at the center will become employees of the management company.

A citizen advisory committee created when Vicksburg opened the facility will continue to meet once a month and make recommendations for the convention center. The committee recommended private management after Cato resigned.