St. Lucie County Commission says Fenn Center for big local events

Decision a response to misused money allegations

ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. - County commissioners decided the primary purpose of the Havert L. Fenn Center in Fort Pierce is for large events — such as gun shows or cage fights — and not community programs, such as yoga or Jazzercise.

Commissioners chose the center's main function at a Tuesday morning workshop and directed county staff to create procedures, rental rates and fees for the center. Officials said large events are economically beneficial to local businesses by bringing in people from outside the area.

The discussion and decision came in response to allegations of misuse of taxpayer money on a wedding reception for county Clerk of the Circuit Court Joe Smith and former Assistant County Attorney Heather Lueke at the center.

Now that the center's primary purpose has been selected, Assistant County Administrator Lee Ann Lowery said she would bring back suggestions for procedures, rates and fees in the next couple of months.

Lowery took over the county Parks, Recreation and Facilities Department, which includes the center, after former Director Debra Brisson resigned in October after Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers broke the news about the Smith wedding reception.

Although the county set rates and fees for the center after it opened on Virginia Avenue in 2008, the county never created written procedures for renting the center. Lowery created interim policies at the beginning of November.

In the event of a disaster, Commissioner Chris Craft reminded officials the primary purpose of the center is a special needs shelter. Most of the $14.7 million cost to build the center was covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, insurance and state grants. The center replaced the old civic center destroyed in the 2004 hurricanes.

Craft said neither function of the center would make a profit, but local and large events generate enough revenue to come closer to covering the costs of the events than community programs.

But Lowery said the rates and fees for the center never were meant to make a profit. She plans to bring back rates and fees for commissioners to discuss and make sure the county would be able to break even when renting the center.

Lowery said the county sometimes charged to cover the cost of county staff working events but usually didn't. She said the center's base expense of $250,000 covers utilities, generator maintenance, pest control and other services but doesn't include staff.

Full-time staff at the center has been cut to four employees, which Lowery said is less than half of what staffing was when the center opened. For larger events, she said the county has hired temporary workers.

Although the county still could continue to allow a limited number of community programs at the center, commissioners agreed other facilities, such as community centers in both Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie, are available to community programs.

If the county had chosen community programs as the center's main function, it would have provided low-cost training programs and inexpensive activities for children and families.

Instead, the county chose larger events that would require higher standards for maintenance and technology, Lowery said. Staff descriptions would change to include working weekends, evenings and holidays because that is when those sorts of events take place.

Commissioner Tod Mowery said upgrading the center for larger events could carry major costs.

Although the county already is upgrading the center's sound system using voter-approved taxpayer money designated for parks, Lowery said the county wouldn't spend more money on the center until necessary.

Instead of investing in materials at the center, Chairman Chris Dzadovsky suggested using materials of an outside company for a public-private partnership.

Dzadovsky said the center is too valuable to focus on community programs only and it would take at least a year to transition to a facility focused on local and larger events.

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