County leaders mull future of Wicker Civic Center
The future of the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center, the site of hundreds of events drawing thousands of visitors annually, is unknown — as the Lee County Commissioners recently voted to consider privatizing the facility.
Commissioners unanimously voted to offer commissioner-driven budget guidance that included a lower tax rate, less money for the Lee County schools and the potential privatization of the civic center, among other items, for Lee County Manager John Crumpton during the board’s meeting last week.
“I think the real intent here by the board, by the majority, is to look at other alternatives than the county continuing to put county dollars into the center and see if there is a way to get private dollars involved,” Crumpton said. “It may not mean we sell it. It may mean we lease or allow a private enterprise to run the center.”
Lee County provides funds for the operations of the building and capital improvements as mandated through a local state bill, but the center has been owned by Central Carolina Community College since 1995. CCCC President Bud Marchant said the county recognized the need for a larger community gathering space during the 1980s and former North Carolina politician Dennis Wicker helped secure more than 70 percent of the funding for the building. The community college was deeded the property in 1995 and the trustees voted to name the center after Wicker.
CCCC Board of Trustees Chairman Julian Philpott said there had been no communication between the two boards before the vote, but he did plan for the civic center to be discussed during the trustee’s annual retreat in January.
“I had not heard anything in the past about privatizing the civic center,” Philpott said. “I know there were concerns on how to secure the funding for the civic center to make repairs and maintenance and that type of thing, but the first time I heard of privatizing the center was during the campaign.”
Newly-elected Lee County Commissioner Kirk Smith suggested privatizing the civic center in the weeks leading up to the November election and could not be reached for comment concerning the latest developments.
Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack asked for the budget guidance to be placed on the meeting agenda and said he believed the board had the authority to privatize the center, but that might require legal loopholes they would need to work through.
“Name me a company that can’t run a facility? I can show you a lot of governments that can’t run a facility,” Womack said. “We may find we need a local bill, but I believe we will have the capacity to outsource it. We will probably retain the building and do a 30-year lease or something like that.”
The building could be government owned, contract operated and, Womack said, he believes there is interest in the center. The occupancy tax, now used to fund the civic center, could then be used to establish a tourism bureau, Womack said.
Marchant said the board of trustees is willing to discuss any options that are of interest to the commissioners.
“The college holds the civic center as a public trust for Lee County,” he said. “The college would like to look to the citizens of Lee County concerning its future.”
The college does not run it as a private enterprise or a classroom building, Marchant said, but as a service for the community.
Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce President Bob Joyce, who served on the committee that discussed the future of the center, has said the civic center was “not meant to be a money-maker.”
“It was intended as a community asset, like a library or museum,” Joyce said. “It was not intended in the beginning as an enterprise. And the college has done a remarkable job in organizing it and promoting it in such a way.”
The civic center has a positive return on investments based on how much the average visitors spends in the community, including shopping, spending the night and meals, Joyce said. Based on data from the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, the civic center had an economic impact of $4.64 million from the last three years’ visitors, Joyce said.
The proposal to consider private funds is worth looking at, he said, but the plan would have to be excellent to compete with the return on investment the civic center already has.
“The Chamber certainly understands the commissioners looking for every possible way to save taxpayers’ dollars,” Joyce said. “They should be commended for that. In this case, there is a very efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars considering the return to private business.”
Crumpton said he plans to meet with the CCCC Board of Trustees during their upcoming meeting and is waiting for more input before sending out requests for information concerning the center.