Is money given to Chehaw and the Civic Center well spent? - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Is money given to Chehaw and the Civic Center well spent?

July 13, 2007

Albany - The city of Albany gives about a million dollars each to the Parks at Chehaw and the Albany Civic Center every year.

Is that money well spent? And should the city also look into providing a similar amount of money to the Flint Riverquarium, which may have to shut down within weeks if emergency finances aren't secured?

The city of Albany gives a million dollars a year to the Parks at Chehaw, and has each year since at least 2000.  That's as far back as Park Director Doug Porter can trace it, but he knows there has always been a subsidy for the park from the city. "This park has a long history with the city, and people need to remember that the park was given to the city by the state of Georgia back in the 1970s," said Porter.

And Porter believes the park will always need some sort of financial assistance. "I don't know if we could be self-sufficient," he said. "A lot of zoos and aquariums are supported by tax dollars, and the reason for that is it keeps the cost affordable."

Which keeps people coming to Chehaw. Actually, attendance numbers have grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years. In 2004, 63,297 people visited the park That number jumped to 79,197 in 2005 and in 2006, a whopping 102,668 people visited Chehaw. 

This year looks to be another big year. By May, 48,530 people had visited the park.  That compares to only 43,426 for the same time period in 2006. If attendance figures continue their upward trend, Chehaw will finish the year with 49,579 visitors more than attended just three years ago.

Porter says the money received from the city is directly responsible for their success. He said, "I make no apologies for the money we do receive from the city."

Nor does Civic Center Director John Mazzola. The Civic Center and its functions are actually a department of the city, and like any other city department are all funded through the general budget.

The civic center expense budget from last fiscal year was $1,369,972. It only took in about $436,000 leaving the rest as tax payer supported, but this year, the city only transferred about $800,000.

Mazzola said, "I think we're here partly as an economic generator, partly to drive bodies downtown, but the key to all of that is so that we don't hurt the taxpayer investment."

City Commissioner Dorothy Hubbard says the Civic Center isn't supposed to be a big money generator for the city. "A civic center is not supposed to sustain itself, it is supposed to be there for the good of the public and so it is in need of public support and most cities around will tell you that they're not self-supporting," she said.

But places like the Civic Center do give back to the city, if not through direct revenue, then through indirect economic impact, bringing warm bodies into the city who spend money in hotels, at restaurants, and in stores.

For FY '07, an estimated 357,000 people were expected to walk through the turnstiles. This year, about 180,000 people have already been to events at the Civic Center.

Since the city already funds recreation and entertainment venues like Chehaw and the Civic Center, would it also be appropriate for them to fund the Riverquarium? "The Riverquarium is a private not-for-profit corporation," said City Manager Alfred Lott. The city is looking into funneling money for RQ through the Inner City Authority.

"I believe the RQ is an important part of the revitalization of downtown," Hubbard said.

Here's a look at the numbers: Since opening in September of 2004, 286,704 people have visited. In the first year of operation, the Flint Riverquarium had 127,919 visitors, but that number dropped the following year to only 81,641, and even more in the last fiscal year to just 77,414.

But with more programming and exhibits, CEO Scott Loehr hopes those numbers will move back up, there's just one problem-- more money is needed to provide that attendance boost.

"Certainly getting every indication that city staff is going to put together a proposal," he said. So does Loehr think the Riverquarium should take part of the money that Chehaw and the Civic Center get from the city?

Absolutely not. He said, "I think all of these resources are part of the package that make Albany attractive to, not only to the people who live here but people who come into this community."

And he hopes the entire community will back all the agencies, with their attendance, and tax dollars.

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