County committee moves to formalize increased control over Carnival Center
By Lou Ortiz
A Miami-Dade County committee Monday endorsed changes in place since June that tighten the county's financial oversight at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts.
The Recreation & Cultural Affairs Committee also heard from the chairman of the center's Performing Arts Center Trust Inc. about changes being made to trim costs and increase revenues.
The full commission is expected to vote Dec. 18 on Monday's committee action, which would amend for the sixth time the county's agreement with the trust, which governs the county's $472 million center.
The operating agreement between the county and the trust was initiated in 1993.
Trust officials agreed to the extra oversight by the county manager and commission auditor in exchange for a $4.1 million bailout the commissioners approved in June. The funds raised the county's annual support of the center — which opened in October 2006 — to just less than $8 million.
The county's support came after the center's miscalculations in occupancy costs. The costs of $15.62 per square feet were more than double the original estimate of $7.50.
Despite the extra county cash, the center finished the fiscal year with a $2.5 million shortfall because of lower than expected ticket sales.
The new amendment gives County Manager George Burgess and the commission auditor "more direct say" in the center's business, Assistant County Manager Alex Munoz told the committee Monday.
"They're in support of this," Mr. Munoz said about the center's trust. "We're not operating the center by any stretch. It gives us more ability to be involved in the oversight."
After the meeting, trust chairman Ricky Arriola said the amendment formalizes what has already taken place. Since the county's bailout, the county manager has appointed a staff person to oversee the center's budget and monthly financial reviews, he said.
"It's formalizing a business practice," Mr. Arriola said. "We welcome it."
Mr. Arriola added that the county manager has always had veto power over selection of the center's CEO.
The effort to put the center on firmer financial footing included the hiring this fall of interim president and CEO Lawrence Wilker, a former president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and a Tony- and Emmy-award winning producer. Mr. Wilker also serves as artistic director.
In May, county government veteran Terea Hebert was named the center's chief operating officer.
In an interview Tuesday, Mr. Wilker said the county's oversight "is the right structure."
As for the trust, he added: "The government can't raise money, so there needs to be some other institution to raise the funds for operational support."
Before the committee approved the center amendment Monday, the panel heard from Mr. Arriola.
He said efforts are underway to assess the center's strengths and weaknesses, ways to operate more efficiently, and "reinvigorating fundraising" efforts.
He said the center has reduced occupancy costs by $400,000 a year by turning over maintenance to an in-house staff instead of contracting the services.
In addition, he said, the center will begin to repay a Sunshine State construction loan with payments of $375,000 per year for 20 years starting this month.
Mr. Arriola added that to increase revenue, the center plans to bring Broadway shows here next summer, increase rentals of center halls and start a monthly Jazz series, among other things.
"It seems like we're on the right track," Commissioner Katy Sorenson told Mr. Arriola.
Commissioner Dennis C. Moss agreed. "I just see some renewed enthusiasm," he said about the center's leadership. "For a long time there we were in the doldrums.
"I sense things are going in the right direction."