Lee Brand thinks it's time to consider firing the company in charge of the Fresno Convention Center.
Reform of the money-losing venue, said the Fresno City Council member, is overdue.
Convention Center officials are pushing back, saying things can be fixed if only everyone calms down.
The next round of this long-running fight comes Tuesday when Brand is slated to convene a meeting of the council's Finance and Audit Committee to review months of research on the city-owned Convention Center.
The data-crunching belongs to Brand, who has turned the four-building downtown facility into a crusade. He has a long list of options and recommendations.
But everything boils down to one goal. Brand is leaning strongly toward ending the contract with Convention Center-manager SMG and opening the job to all comers.
His thinking: SMG is getting stale, a revised contract means more money for the city and the center should be attracting more events.
The Convention Center "is a major component of our downtown," Brand said. "Maybe we need to get some new eyes looking at this thing."
Brand's leverage is the contract. SMG took over Convention Center management in 2004. The deal was for five years with options. The two sides in late 2008 agreed to a 10-year extension that allows City Hall to end the deal if SMG fails to meet its budget benchmark.
Brand said SMG for the last two years has missed the mark.
If the three-member committee gives its blessing, Brand's plans would advance to the full council, perhaps late this month.
Convention Center General Manager Bill Overfelt, who works for Philadelphia-based SMG, said Brand can get most of what he wants through good-faith talks.
"We think things will improve over time," Overfelt said. "The future is bright."
Brand has pitched his concerns since July.
City-owned convention centers traditionally lose money and are maintained at public expense because they're viewed as key pieces of the civic fabric, Brand said. The Fresno Convention Center's subsidy in recent years is about $8 million annually, he estimates.
There has to be a way to reduce this dependence and rev up demand for Selland Arena, Saroyan Theatre, Valdez Exhibit Hall and the New Exhibit Hall, Brand said.
Brand early in his research said all options would be on the table. These included selling the center and mothballing one or more buildings. The first idea was never serious — the center has too much bond debt (a big reason for the huge city subsidy) to interest a buyer. The second idea was quickly discarded — local hotel operators said convention and meeting planners hate uncertainty over availability of the center's venues.
Brand has honed his thoughts. His recommendations include:
More city control over center operations, including subcontractor services and the booking of events.
Annual city audits of center operations, with an independent audit at least every three years.
Greater city influence in the selection and removal of the center's manager.
Creation of a five-person oversight board consisting of one member of the Fresno-Clovis Convention and Visitors Bureau, one representative of the hotel/motel industry, one member from the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce, one City Council member and the city manager.
Brand will offer the council three strategic options: Do nothing; renegotiate the contract; cancel the contract and start anew.
Overfelt said SMG in its nearly 10 years at the helm has improved Convention Center finances.
He said the average net operating loss for the past three years was $1.1 million, compared to $2.5 million in 2003, the year before SMG's arrival. Annual overhead costs dropped more than $800,000 from the early years of SMG's tenure. SMG helped the city during the Great Recession with what the company calls a "non-reimbursable grant" to cover certain operating expenses.
Overfelt said there's no conflict of interest with Fresno State's Save Mart Center (managed by a separate SMG team) because the two venues have different roles in the meeting/entertainment world.
Overfelt said SMG has a new promoter-incentive package to spur bookings.
"We need to see the revitalization of downtown," Overfelt said. "We need the support of our politicians and the entire community. If those things happen, it's going to be positive for the Convention Center."
Brand and Overfelt have marshaled piles of number-filled papers to buttress their arguments. The winner, though, may hinge on two factors missing from both stacks.
Brand said the city with its tight budget needs every dollar. City officials continue to cast a wary eye at the bottom line. But the crisis atmosphere has receded in the wake of better-than-expected property tax revenues and a yearlong residential trash fight that went against Mayor Ashley Swearengin yet didn't lead to bankruptcy.
And none of Brand's elected peers at City Hall — fellow committee members Blong Xiong and Clint Olivier, the other four council members, Swearengin — has shown anything close to Brand's passion for bringing SMG to its knees.
It's unclear whether Brand, should he push hard to boot a conciliatory SMG out the door, has the votes to get his way.
Brand is undeterred.
"I'm doing something that should have been done a long time ago."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.
If you go
What: Meeting of Fresno City Council’s Finance and Audit Committee
Why: SMG’s contract to manage the Fresno Convention Center
When: 3 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Council Chamber, Fresno City Hall, 2600 Fresno St.