County seeks new management for Ford Park

Ford Park
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Fourteen years later, Ford Park is still losing millions. Canceled shows and low participation in the events that do take place don’t help, but as shown in Jefferson County documentation of the publicly subsidized entertainment complex, neither do the six-figure salaries paid to employees that have yet to bring the project up to par.

According to county officials, SMG, the management company currently overseeing Ford Park, has been unfettered in its governance at the facility – given two five-year contract extensions on top of the original five-year contract that will come to a close in the spring of 2017. In the interim, Jefferson County Commissioners are hoping to get in new ideas and possibly even a new management team to breathe life into a project that requires roughly $2 million in taxpayer money each year.

Commissioner Everette “Bo” Alfred said that he and other elected officials of Commissioners Court have a responsibility to the taxpayers to make sure funds are expended in the most frugal means possible, getting the most value to the public. Ford Park may provide quality-of-life benefits to the populace, but the costs associated with operating the facility should bear at least some scrutiny, he said.

Alfred offered up one word as explanation for the need to request new proposals for Ford Park management: “Accountability.” When SMG was first awarded the management contract, there were no performance models put in place – something that troubles the county commissioner.

“This court is living with what we had long before we got there,” Alfred said. “This is the first time we’ve had a chance to open Pandora’s Box. There was no model set. There was no ‘try to do a break-even, try to show where our dollars and cents are being spent’ – there was none of that.”

And Jefferson County received none of that. According to County Auditor Patrick Swain, Ford Park has never turned a profit, and never not needed public subsidy.

“Of course we’re going to try to lower our subsidy that we have to pay each year,” Swain said of the expected outcome of opening up the Ford Park management contract to new bidders. “Right now, we give roughly $2 million for operations. (SMG) comes to us and says ‘Here’s your budget. We think we’re going to have so many events the next year’ which brings in X dollars. Payroll, repairs, management fees … utilities is a big expense, maintenance … And that’s where the county has to come out of the general fund for the extra.”

According to a recent Ford Park financial statement, the money taken in from events doesn’t even cover payments made to suppliers – with more than a half-million dollar deficit there alone. Then you add in more than $1.5 million in payroll, and the county foots the bill with no oversight on how those funds are utilized.

“I have no idea what they’re paid,” Alfred said, but added that other county employees are at least somewhat aware – and are unhappy – about what they perceive as an unequal allocation of assets. “We have no control over that – that’s part of the contract. When you have to be real about it, though, we have to look at realistically where the budget is going, where the money is being used.”

According to information in the request for proposal (RFP) for the management contract, the top administration of Ford Park is heavily compensated for losing $2 million annually. General Manager John Hughes, one sales administrator and a part-time receptionist share $258,786 annually in salary. Further, according to the information, the top five employees along with two part-timers take in $500,000. Combined salaries for Ford Park are $1.65 million. Additionally, Jefferson County paid a $135,000 “management fee” to SMG this year in addition to the employees’ salaries, which has increased from the last contract renewal annual management fee budget amount of $86,000 – part of the contract. In return, the county had 170 events take place at Ford Park for the 2015 fiscal year, represented predominately by use of the softball/baseball fields. There were only four concerts, seven conventions and six sporting events.

“The revenues are down, and we have salaries where they are,” Alfred said. “The reason why I pushed to at least go back out and to open that Pandora’s Box and renegotiate is because when you ask about these things, we’re told, ‘It’s a part of the contract.’ But you can only say that so long. Some measurement, some productivity … you produce, we can see X – something.”

Swain said it may be hard-pressed for anyone to make a break-even bid to run the facility at Ford Park, which includes “all aspects of the complex including operations, concessions, scheduling, ticketing and marketing” for Ford Fields, Ford Pavilion, Ford Arena, the main lobby, meeting rooms, Ford Exhibit Hall, the Barns, and Ford Midway, collectively known as the Ford Park Entertainment Complex.

“Open it up and give someone else the opportunity to bid, then,” Alfred said. “It gives the citizens hope we are doing the best thing for them so at least we aren’t going 20 years without looking at what’s really being spent out at Ford Park.”

Jefferson County Purchasing Agent Deborah Clark said that the county did try to go out and seek new bids for Ford Park management in 2012 but received no responses. Even now, there doesn’t seem to be much interest from other agencies trying to get into the Ford Park management game, although bidding on the proposal ends Tuesday, July 12.

“Spectra is the only one that’s called asking questions,” Clark said. “I advertised in the newspapers twice, and I have a bidders list we sent the proposal to (of seven potential bidders). We even extended the bid.”

According to Clark, there is always the option to rebid the proposal again, or to look at other options such as self-management where the county would oversee the facility. If SMG still wants to do the job, she added, they would need to rebid on the project as well, and there is no guarantee the commissioners will accept any proposal offered up.

“We may not be able to do anything,” Alfred said. “We may not get any bids, or find out that no one can do it for less. Still, if we’re spending (over $2 million) and we look at what we’ve received, it would be interesting to make some arguments and, as a court, we can make a decision.

“If the YMBL can be successful, that tells me there’s hope for Ford Park to be successful. To me, that would help our whole area. This is about making sure we get the best for our community, for our tax dollars – to make sure we bring out our best.”

Alfred said outside-the-box thinking can’t hurt at this point either.

“We can tap into our resources – local entertainment industry people, the chambers, we have a lot of local resources we are not utilizing,” he said.

If the deficit spending at Ford Park can’t be curbed, Alfred said the county will be looking at tougher decisions in the future as it relates to the facility’s operation.

“The fact of the matter is revenues are down in the county, and we have to worry about essential services,” Alfred said. “We may be able to do better … maybe not. In the end, it’s all about providing the essentials, and is this essential?

“It’s going to be interesting. But I know we will do what’s right for our taxpayers.”

Calls to Ford Park’s current management team were not answered as of press time.