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City ponders path forward as CVB relinquishes management of the Event Center at Brushy Fork

BUCKHANNON – Starting in April, a new entity will be managing the Event Center at Brushy Fork – but just who that will be remains in flux after a lengthy discussion at Buckhannon City Council’s meeting Thursday.

The Upshur County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, which has been managing the space since it first opened in 2014, can no longer operate the center due to changes made by the West Virginia Legislature relating to how CVBs must spend their funding.

“The legislature, in their infinite wisdom, decided that in order for CVBs to operate and to gain and reattain accreditation — which if they are not accredited, they cannot accept local hotel/motel revenue — they have to operate on a 20-40-40 percentage,” mayor Robbie Skinner explained. “The salaries cannot exceed 40%, the operating costs cannot exceed 20%, and the marketing for your region should be about 40%.”

Because Upshur County is a smaller tourism market and the CVB has the event center under its umbrella, they currently do not meet those requirements.

“We cannot, under the current system, gain accreditation,” Skinner said, noting that the Upshur County CVB has a high salary percentage because they employ not just a CVB director, but also an event center director and part-time employees as needed to host events.

Upshur County CVB Executive Director Laura Meadows, who is set to step down from the agency on March 31, noted that revenues from the hotel/motel tax are also down due to the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as a long-term reduction in hotel rooms locally.

“On top of everything else, we have a reduction in revenue from the hotel/motel tax,” Meadows told council. “We’ve lost hotel rooms, and we can’t get those back at this point. So, we have a permanent reduction of our hotel/motel tax… All those things combined have made the perfect storm.”

Skinner noted that the city is required by law to provide 50% of its hotel/motel tax revenues to the CVB, but the City of Buckhannon actually contributes 70%, while using the remainder for the downtown flower program. That currently equates to about $95,000 a year for the CVB, which Meadows said is down 30% from the pre-pandemic level.

To comply with the new state law, the CVB board made the decision to exit the event center management role effective March 31.

“If the CVB were to relinquish control of the convention center, their percentage is much, much, much closer, and they fall in line with where they need to be to attain the accreditation,” Skinner said. “So that’s where we are.”

Skinner noted that contractually, the City of Buckhannon is named in the lease agreement with the National Guard, which will be unaffected by the CVB’s decision. Previous discussions in executive session explored the idea of the city itself taking on the management duties, he said.

“What if the City of Buckhannon became the managing agent of the space?” Skinner asked council. “Instead of naming a third party to manage the event center portion of the building, we would just take on that responsibility. We would then have the employee reporting to the city, and we would be the event manager and space manager for that facility.”

Councilman C.J. Rylands suggested council first meet with the National Guard.

“Things have changed since we started,” Rylands said. “You have a new event center 300 yards away that has food and beverage. We have the Opera House downtown. None of those things were available back then.”

Rylands owns the Opera House, which is located on Main Street.

“I think our first step should be to send a representative to talk to the National Guard and say, ‘Look, this has never worked for us,’” Rylands said. “Just explain the facts. We were underwater on this thing from the get-go.”

Rylands noted that when the city was initially exploring the idea of the event center, they learned from the manager of Bridgeport Conference Center that most of the profit does not come from rent, but from food and beverage sales.

“But this particular setup does not accommodate having a chef and everything,” Rylands said. “You just don’t have the business volume.”

City attorney Tom O’Neill noted that beyond the direct costs of managing the center, the city has other financial considerations because of their previous legal commitments – costs that will continue even if the city decides not to manage the center.

“The city has two financial obligations with respect to that,” O’Neill said. “One is to the Guard, for 17% of all the utilities at the facility. The Guard certainly could absorb those themselves if they so choose.”

The other financial commitment is repaying the $765,000 loan the city took out to finance construction in 2013.

“For the next 40 years, the city is going to be paying off a loan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Guard cannot waive that,” O’Neill said. “That should be considered a sunk cost.”

City Recorder Randy Sanders urged council to seriously consider its options to try and ensure the event center remains open.

“I think that the first step — I agree with Mr. Rylands — is very expeditiously, we should schedule a conversation with the National Guard. And then council needs to consider if we do want the city to take over the management role, which I think we should look at, and give it one more concerted effort,” Sanders said. “I don’t think we need to get into that tonight, until we talk to the National Guard, but I think we need to give it a full vet and have a serious conversation about our options so that we can continue delivering services at the event center.”

Council agreed that although the event center might not directly generate a profit, the benefits throughout the community are numerous.

“The thing we can never lose sight of is, if we can bring events to the community that create hotel lodging, then that hotel/motel tax is still being generated,” Sanders said. “We hope that people shop within the city limits and the 1% sales tax is being generated. So, it’s not always an immediate return we see on paper.”

Rylands noted that most city entities – like the fire and police departments – provide services that don’t generate revenue, and Skinner agreed the event center’s ancillary benefits are extensive.

“The eating and shopping and staying is a great benefit,” he said.

Meadows noted that with the CVB relinquishing the management duties, the agency will have more time and funding to devote to bringing tourism and events to the area, which boosts the local economy as a whole.

“[The event center] might not be a moneymaker, but it’s a service offered to our community for all of these other opportunities,” she said. “And to have a true, healthy advertising campaign behind all of Buckhannon is a huge asset that we’ve really missed in the past few years… This is a difficult position, but it’s all for the best.”

Regardless of the final decision, Sanders said the city needs to ensure any existing rental commitments will be honored.

“We have an obligation to the contracts that are out there, up through the month of September,” Sanders said. “We have to fulfill those obligations.”

Council ultimately decided to expeditiously schedule a meeting with the West Virginia National Guard, while committing to honor existing agreements through at least through September.

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