Council to vote on LDEC?plan

Aaron Looney
The gates of the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center may be closed by this time next year, unless the Parish Council votes to place a tax proposition on the Nov. 4 ballot that would fund the purchase and upgrade of the multi-use facility by parish government. The council’s Finance Committee voted Thursday to place a 1/8-cent sales tax proposal on the ballot, instead of a 3-mill property tax suggested by Parish President Tommy Martinez. The council will disuss the matter at its meeting tonight in the council chambers in Gonzales. Martinez has said that he does not favor renewing the lease-purchase agreement between the parish and the Lamar-Dixon Foundation for use of the center when it expires next July.

The Ascension Parish Council will vote Tuesday on whether it wants to place a tax issue on the Nov. 4 ballot for funding the purchase and upgrade of the controversial Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales.

However, the council’s Finance Committee voted Thursday not to send Parish President Tommy Martinez’s 3-mill property tax proposal to the full council for discussion and possible vote, but an alternative plan for a 1/8 cent sales tax.

The council will meet Tuesday in its chambers at the Parish Courthouse East in Gonzales at 7:30 p.m., following a regularly scheduled School Board meeting in the same room.

After a motion had been made to send Martinez’s proposal to the full council, Councilman Todd Lambert made a substitute motion to instead consider the 1/8-cent tax proposal, which he said was “more fair” to parish residents than a millage and would generate $2.6 million annually.

Councilmen Oliver Joseph, Adrian Thompson, George Valentine, Benny Johnson and Lambert voted for the sales tax idea, while Council Chairman Pat Bell and Councilman Randy Clouatre voted against the measure. Councilman Chris Loar, who chairs the Finance Committee, did not vote, but showed support for Martinez’s’ plan during discussions.

Martinez had originally scheduled to ask the council to adopt a resolution at its meeting earlier this month to place his plan on the Nov. 4 parishwide ballot, but copies of the proposal were inadvertently left out of the council members’ meeting packets. This led to the issue being removed from the meeting agenda.

It would cost the parish $7.5 million to purchase the facility and around $12 million to enclose the center’s main arena and add a climate control system, Martinez said.

In discussions Thursday, Valentine criticized Martinez’ proposal and cited the lack of a detailed plan for the facility.

“As our poll showed, the people are willing to support a tax if there’s a plan,” Valentine said. “Yet here we are, trying to put something on the ballot and vote on it, and we don’t have a plan. That disturbs me.”

When Valentine asked why Martinez favored a property tax, the parish president said that it was merely a suggestion that he put together in order to put a budget together.

“If it’s not the wishes of the council that Ascension Parish Government own Lamar-Dixon, I don’t think the Dixons have a problem with that, either,” Martinez said. “We need to look at options. If you have any other options, we’d be willing to entertain them.”

Valentine said that in the past three years, there have been offers made by outside investors to purchase the center. He also pointed out that much of the sales tax revenue that comes from people visiting the center goes to the City of Gonzales, where most of the nearby businesses are located.

“I won’t vote against putting it to the people, but I don’t think it’s the best option to give it life,” Valentine said of purchasing the facility.

Martinez countered Valentine’s comments by stating that no other council members have presented a plan for the center.

Lambert told the council that he felt the 1/8-cent sales tax was more fair because many people in the parish would never use the center.

“Why tax these people with property taxes if they’re never even going to go to the center?” Lambert asked.

The previous council attempted to place Lambert’s same tax proposal to parish voters, but Hughes vetoed the measure.

Joseph, who chairs the council’s Recreation Committee, said he’d rather see funds from Martinez’ plan go toward parish recreation as a whole. He made a substitute motion to do so, but the motion died from a lack of second.

Martinez has said that if a tax is not approved by voters this year, he would not favor renewal the lease-purchase agreement with the Lamar-Dixon Foundation that the parish has worked under for the past three-plus years. The agreement expires next July.

“This is something that’s been hanging around,” Martinez said. “It needs to come to some sort of closure. I’m not trying to sell Lamar-Dixon to you.”

Under the terms of the contract, none of the money the parish is paying to lease the multi-use facility on St. Landry Road goes toward the overall purchase price of $7.5 million.

In 2005, then-Parish President Ronnie Hughes signed the lease-purchase agreement with the Lamar-Dixon Foundation, just before the center was set to close its doors as owners Bill and Mary Lee Dixon could no longer operate it.

According to figures from parish government, the center has operated at a loss of $700,000 each year since the parish took over operations. The parish contracted management group SMG, which operates numerous other venues in the state including the Louisiana Superdome and the Baton Rouge River Center, to run the facility’s day-to-day operations.

However, Martinez said that if the parish would take over operations of the center and not pay rent or management costs, it would cut the estimated annual loss to around $250,000.

Both Martinez and Eddie Crawford, general manager of the facility for SMG, have said that booking long- and short-term events in advance would be easier if promoters knew the stability of the center’s ownership and its future.

Earlier in the meeting, SMG Regional Vice President Doug Thornton made a presentation to the committee on the center’s operations since SMG took over its management. Thornton presented figures to show that the center is losing less money that it has in years past.

In his PowerPoint presentation, Thornton said that while the center had budgeted a loss of $176,275 for 2008, it is forecast to finish with a projected loss of $143,793, a difference of $32,422. This does not include the money the parish is paying in the lease-purchase agreement as well as other costs. Combined, the figures would total an overall loss of $388,130 for the year.

Parish government statistics show that the loss would be significantly lower than those of the past two years, which each totaled more than $900,000.

The center did earn a profit during the six-month period following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when it was used as a shelter for evacuees and animals as well as a staging area for numerous organizations.

Thorton said while operations such as the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center are rarely built to make money, the center could turn a profit for the parish in the future “under the right conditions.”

SMG’s near-term business strategy for the center include clearing the uncertainty over the center’s ownership, bringing in more national and regional events, pursuing advertising and sponsorships and securing a signature event, Thorton said.

The council faces a tight deadline if they wish to present a proposal to voters in November. The state deadline to place an item on the ballot is Wednesday.

Council Chairman Pat Bell said last week the full council meeting was rescheduled because a majority of council members would be attending a seminar in Houma on the regular Thursday meeting date.