Meridian Center idea carries upside, risk

We’ve often spoke against the phrase “Well, that’s how we’ve always done it.”

It’s a lazy phrase and way of thinking. It keeps people from coming up with new ideas and re-evaluating existing ones.

So when we heard that the city was considering taking over operations of the Meridian Center, we thought, let’s hear them out.

The city paid and is still paying $3.6 million to construct its convention center, and according to City Manager Bob Myers, pays around $100,000 annually for Kemper Sports to manage it.

In exchange, Newton has a great convention venue that’s well run, friendly, serves good food and also is a great community patron.

From 2011 to 2017, the city estimated that the convention center hosted more than 1,200 events, with 90,000 visitors to the venue.

We at the paper worked with the center to hold multiple events.

The Meridian Center staff has continued to work to make the location revenue neutral. Revenue numbers have improved since it opened. The location has offered events like brunches and Valentine’s dinners to bring in more funding and residents.

Still, while the center is getting closer to being revenue neutral, revenues were around $68,000 less than expenditures for 2016.

Sales tax from the city helps pay for those operating expenses.

So Myers’s idea is this: the city manage its building, save the operating contract, push the center toward its revenue neutral goal and move forward.

The city would retain the management fee. The city would have direct control over a venue that it helps pay for with tax dollars. And if the city could get the center to being revenue neutral, that could amount to more city savings.

Myers said those savings would be used to pay for capital improvements at Sand Creek Station Golf Course as well as provide some improvement help to the Meridian Center.

If such a vision goes as planned, the city could avoid spending extra money on the golf course, which will begin to need significant work to keep up greens, bunkers and its golf cart fleet.

Sounds like a grand solution.

However, such a solution involves a lot of moving parts.

First, to keep the same quality of service, the city would likely have to maintain the Meridian Center staff.

The staff would have to be released from Kemper Sports and choose to work for the city. Kemper Sports would likely have to consent to the changes, something that Myers thought would be possible, since the city would invest the savings into Sand Creek Station, which Kemper also manages.

The Meridian Center has built up a reputation for being a quality venue, and the training and development offered by Kemper Sports has likely led to such a reputation. Then the city would have to be able to manage the convention center at a similar or better level than it is currently being managed, if it wants to hit its goal of being revenue neutral.

The city would also have to continue to manage the facility when there is turn over and hire competent staff to run it. The city would also now be in the convention center business.

If that business was so easy, the question would be why did it contract with Kemper Sports in the first place?

Finally, the change in management would make the convention center subject to the whims and ideas of the Newton City Commission. Some of the “out of the box” thinking commissioners like to talk about doesn’t exactly translate to a stable business model.

All of this is to say Myers’s idea could be a good one. He said staff is working to crunch numbers on it.

We’d recommend they do some crunching and then crunch again and then step back and see if the idea still makes sense. Then they should have public hearings about it, as it’s the public’s building. We know of a good venue for that in Newton. And if the commissioners feel absolutely sure about the change, after receiving public input, only then should they decide to move forward.

The Meridian Center represents a long-term project that’s taken a lot of work and thinking to get it to this point.

If this change would be bungled, the city would go from spending money on a well-run location that draws in thousands of people as well as out-of-town dollars, to being responsible for a center that has a growing revenue gap and shrinking attendance. Drops in attendance then shrink some of the financial benefits such a change would have.

This change could have a lot of upside, but it also carries risk.

The city really needs to make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.