County officials wrangle with options to keep Expo Center open

By Kathryn Jones

Editor

Bull riding is one of the most popular events at the Somervell County PRCA Rodeo. Photo courtesy Somervell County Expo Center

Bull riding is a popular events at the Somervell County PRCA Rodeo. Photo courtesy Somervell County Expo Center

On most weekends, horse or cow trailers, pickup trucks and RVs crowd the parking lots of the Somervell County Expo Center for a longhorn show, a barrel race, a rodeo or some other stock-related event.

The Expo’s exhibition hall has hosted senior proms, fossil shows, wedding receptions, health fairs and even a women’s UFO conference.

But the Expo doesn’t make money for the county government; its expenses have surpassed its revenues for years, which the county covers through an “enterprise fund” to offset the deficit. And in a budget year when the valuation for the county’s traditional cash cow, the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant, is expected to fall by $300 million, county officials are scrambling for a way to cut costs and keep the Expo running.

Contrary to some rumors circulating around the community, the Expo Center is not slated for closure. No action item has been scheduled on the Somervell County Commissioners Court agenda. Commissioners discussed the Expo’s future in a June 23 workshop meeting on the fiscal 2014-2015 budget.

County Judge Mike Ford said in an interview this week that he does not want to see the center close and he doesn’t believe the majority of county commissioners do, either.

“My view has always been that it is a form of economic development we provide for the community,” Ford said.

The Expo is an equestrian center and not an exhibition center, Ford added. Thus, the kinds of events held there are not “ticket events” that attract the general public. Instead, usually the facility is rented to a particular group, although the Expo Center has added weekly events, such as a barrel race on Tuesdays and team roping on Wednesdays, to attract locals.

The Expo is booked 48 weekends of the year and draws more than 100,000 people annually. It contributes to local businesses – how much isn’t exactly known, but Ford said, “I cannot believe it does not have a significant impact on the community.”

On the other hand, the county government cannot continue to supplement the Expo’s operations at the rate it has in the past, Ford added. The county’s 2014 budget for the Expo Center totaled almost $1.4 million.

“The question for the community is how do we cut as much expense from it as we can without interfering with its function or customer service,” he continued. “It is going to be a struggle.”

The Expo’s largest expenses are personnel – including $80,601 for the director, $112,539 for administrative salaries, $140,384 for maintenance personnel and $186,026 for custodial personnel – equipment and supplies, and utilities.

Because the center is air-conditioned rather than open air, events can be held there on the hottest summer days.

“That’s the reason people are here – they can have a horse or cow show in July and have air-conditioned comfort,” Ford said. “That’s why we get some of the shows we get.”

Ford declined to identify possible groups or individuals who may be interested in the facility and he said the county will look at all options before making a decision.

“I don’t want to muddy the waters with possibilities because we’ve looked at a whole lot of things,” Ford said.

The county judge presents his proposed budget to commissioners by the end of July. Then the court will discuss budget priorities and amounts, hold a public meeting and then vote. Commissioners have to approve a new budget before the next fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

“I don’t feel like the court is wanting to close the Expo,” Ford said, but instead wants to “find an alternative that cuts our costs and allows the Expo to run as efficiently as possible.”

During Ford’s term, he has seen Comanche Peak’s valuation and contribution to county coffers fall by $700 million. But he said he believes this is the last year of the downturn.

“This is going to turn around,” he said. “I feel pretty confident this is the last downward trend year. Natural gas prices are going up, electricity prices are going up.”

Ford said his goal was to finish his term as county judge without having to close any facility because of financial pressure. Under his tenure the county signed an agreement with the operators of “The Promise” passion play to take over the Texas Ampitheatre, which also operated at a deficit.

Ford, who did not run for re-election, will turn over the top county job to the winner of the November general election. Danny Chambers is running unopposed on the Republican ticket.

“Anything you close is really difficult to reopen,” Ford said. “If we want to do that for reasons other than the budget, fine. But our total quality of life here is built on all the things we have here – everyone profits.

“The businesses here understand that they can’t make it on locals alone – it’s the number of people coming through here,” he added. “The Expo and ampitheatre have something to do with that.”

 

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