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Columbia County's TDC Considers DuPree's Boondoggle in the Boondocks, again

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Last Wednesday, November 28, Columbia County's Tourist Development Council (TDC) met at the 911 Communications Center to discuss the "Boondoggle in the Boondocks" or the proposed County Events Center.

First discussed and rejected by the TDC in July of 2011, the die was cast for then Commissioner Jody DuPree to wheel and deal the County Commission to hand pick a committee to further evaluate the project. The public was not invited to comment, was not asked to volunteer, and the experts at the TDC were just ignored.

• Download the Event Center Reports here.
County Power Point added on Oct. 10
Read why it can't pay for itself here.

During the November 8th TDC meeting the main topic of concern was the proposed event center. David Kraus, Lake City's former City Manager and now Columbia County's Safety Division Manager represented the County during the meeting.

Mr. Kraus summarized the findings of the closed door "fact finding" committee and advised the TDC that there were a lot more studies that had to be done before real and meaningful numbers would be known.

Commissioner Jody DuPree
County Commissioner Jody DuPree listens to a member of the audience during the October presentation. This was the only time the public could ask questions.

"There may be additional studies in terms of feasibility and viability. You are really just doing your due diligence," he said.

So far, not counting the time of County employees and the undisclosed thousands spent on attorney's fees, the county's pocket book is about $50,000 lighter.

"My understanding is the TDC would like better communication. You can request that the County Commission include a representative of the TDC be placed on the County (Commission's) Committee. You would have a link to that committee and know what's going on," said Mr. Kraus.

Columbia County Resources (CCR), the folks that run the Fair Grounds and the Rodeo, are somehow tied in with this project and seem to have the power to put the kibosh on the entire deal. No one from the County or CCR has given the public a clear, fact filled explanation regarding the reasons for this entanglement.

Mr. Kraus explained that once the new convention center/fairground opened, CCR would give the County the present fairground land to sell, which has an estimated value $6 million. He said it would help pay off the cost of the new building.

Mr. Kraus then asked himself, "What are they getting out of it?"

He answered, "They are getting a larger facility, a modern arena where they can do the rodeo and things indoors, rather than outdoors. They are getting 200 acres of land."

Nick Patel: hotel entrepreneur and TDC member

Hotel owner Nick Patel asked, "Are they going to manage it? I thought they were looking for an outside agency to manage it?"

The conversation continued:

Mr. Kraus: "They will be part of the board that oversees it. They have not decided whether they will hire a private company to manage it, or what, but one of the options was you would hire professional management."

Mr. Patel: "They will decide what the County will decide?"

Mr. Kraus:  "The new board that was created to run the new facility."

Mr. Patel:  "Is that the same board that is making the decision to do this -- is going to manage that, too?"

Mr. Kraus:  "Not necessarily. That board has not been considered -- picked -- thought of. The idea is it would consider people from CCR as well as County appointees."

Mr. Patel:  "If you could write these things down and convey concerns that I have, as far as the TDC is concerned, I would definitely appreciate that."

Hotel owner Patel gets down to brass tacks

Mr. Patel explained the economics of running a hotel in Lake City: "I've got a hotel which is 45,000 sq ft. The wages on any one hotel would not be more than $500,000. So you are looking at $1,500,000 for three hotels, not $3,200,000 as the SMG report shows."

(The County's Planning Committee report shows 4 hotels at $3,200,000)

Mr. Patel explained hotel employment. "As far the employment -- I can tell you for the three hotels you will not have more than 70 employees."

Where are the real numbers?

He continued, "That's real numbers. Numbers coming from years of experience. I feel the projection that was given to the people needs to change and real numbers need to be put in place."

"I don't think grassroots research was done by SMG. Grassroots research means talking with the TDC folks; talking with the hotel's director of sales; talking with GM's as to the number of events booked during the year – the number of people who come for those events. What are the events that we are missing because we don't have a bigger facility? That kind of grassroots research was not done by this report and I don't know why."

Mr. Patel said grassroots research fell short. "When you do a study for anything grassroots research is the most important thing you do," he said.

A lifetime commitment to subsidize

Mr. Patel continued, "If the County is asking the TDC board to make a lifetime commitment of paying one penny towards this center's cost, then I truly believe that the County has to make a lifetime commitment to a contingency plan to at least support the center with $500,000 in case of a revenue shortfall."

"In order for us to sit at the TDC and feel secure, I think the County not only needs to support it for the first few years, but needs to make a commitment, just like we do with a pennyworth of bed tax, for the life of the center in case there is a revenue shortfall. I think it's the right thing to do."

Mr. Patel explained that the event centers don't make money, "I know centers like these that have not made money for a long period of time. There is no way in the world that this would be profitable in three years. I guarantee you that."

The County's consultants claimed profitability in three years.

Time to get serious

Mr. Kraus told the TDC that it was time to get serious, "You've got to get serious about this and do studies and see if it's real. We need to go from those numbers to real numbers."


It was agreed that Nick Patel's name would be submitted to the County Commission for inclusion on the Event Center Committee. He told the TDC, "I don't know if I would be welcome there."

Mr. Patel's name is on Thursday night's County Commission consent agenda for the appointment.

DuPree's Boondoggle in the Boondocks continues, with the next step ready to ramp up to spend $200,000 dollars of County folk's money on more studies.

With the county's good ole boys running the show, it is no secret why nobody wants to call a public hearing to hear the County's taxpayers speak. 

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