County wants out of Vets Building business

Posted on April 20, 2011 by Sonoma Valley Sun

The upkeep on the place is murder, the utilities are sky high and the owner is losing about a million bucks a year on the place. Tuesday, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors did what most landlords would do in the same situation. It raised the rent.

Use fees for the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Building will rise from 30 to 100 percent, and community groups may no longer get a non-profit discount. Additionally, to save on staff time, availability of the building will be cut.

Longer term, the board has called for proposals from new operators willing to take over the facility. The county maintains eight vets buildings, a significant drain on a budget already looking at a $42 million deficit.

A vested operator could manage, book and run the Sonoma facility much more efficiently, said Supervisor Valerie Brown. Speaking at an April 15 community meeting at the First Street West facility, Brown said the hall has great potential.

“The building is not marketed at all,” she said. “We haven’t had the staff to do it.” With upgrades and a savvy marketing plan, “you could turn a tidy little profit.”

The Sonoma hall is booked to about 22 percent of capacity, according to a county report.
Though fees will rise, perhaps forcing some non-profit groups to move their meetings elsewhere, Brown stressed that veterans will retain priority access. “Our first obligation is to the veterans,” she said. “Their use is protected.”

Also safe, at least until the contract ends in July of 2013, is the deal that gives the Sonoma City Council the ability to award 20 free days usage of the space every year. The city pays the county $10,000 a year, then waives the fee for community groups who request specific event dates for fundraisers.

A new operator would not necessarily be bound to renew that contract.

Formally known as a Request for Proposal, the county’s call for new management plans is fairly wide open. An operator could propose use of the entire 10-acre campus, which includes the adjacent ball fields and parking lot, or the building itself. The length of any contact is negotiable, as is the rent.

The county isn’t looking to make money on the deal, Brown said, but to stop losing it.

Caryl Hart, who as director of Sonoma County Regional Parks is responsible for running the vets buildings, said the “the goal is to find a local entity that knows the community, that will energize the use of the building.”

Though the call will in effect going out nationally, Hart said the weighted criteria will favor a local entity. “It’s almost a requirement to continue to offer community access,” she said.

Once a new operator is in place, the Board of Supervisors will retain the right to approve its fee structure and any subsequent rate increases.

Structurally, the building is in great shape, Brown said, but lacks energy improvements and perhaps the aesthetic appeal of a wine country event space. “Whoever comes in will have to make some changes,” she said. “The trade off is a long-term contract.”

The deadline for proposals will be sometime this summer, with the board naming the winning bidder several weeks later.

Brown emphatically ruled out selling the building and any of its prime acreage. “It’s not an option,” she declared. “End of story.”

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