Empty too often?

Published 12:57 am Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Covington Center Arena is doing just what it was designed to do – increase local traffic and provide an entertainment venue for the public – according to several area merchants and the man who chaired the committee that planned the facility.

Stanley Wilson, Ph.D., a retired educator and former county resident now living in Auburn, chaired the committee during the arena’s inception. Wilson said the primary thought behind the project was to promote economic development while providing an avenue for agriculture venues.

“It was a long process,” Wilson said of planning the arena. “As always, there was some concern when using public money that what you’re using it for turns out well. I think it has. We looked at it as an economic development project, but of course we were concerned about it being utilized or that it might sit there and not be used.

“I don’t think that the vision was that it would be a money maker in itself, but that it would bring business into Covington County and people who would spend that money. I think it has done that.”

The proprietors of Touch of Country, a Western specialty store, the Days Inn and David’s Catfish all said the arena has helped make their businesses successful.

Marcy James, owner of Touch of Country, said the customers who come from events held at the arena have “made her business” and often prompt sales more than 50 percent over her usual totals.

“God yes, I think that arena has an impact on my business, but I cater to most of the people who do that kind of stuff,” James said. “And they buy everything I sell from furniture, jewelry clothes, car tags, just everything that I have.

“And because of the type of business I have, I’m probably the one and only person who says I do 50 to75 percent more than usual when there is an event,” she said.

“The economic impact of the arena is enormous,” she said. “It has made our business. We were a little bitty hole in the wall before it was built.”

James said when she travels to market in Atlanta, Ga., twice a year, she’s been told countless times what an asset the arena is to Andalusia.

“Everyone else respects it,” she said. “And the people who live here, they don’t respect it. It’s sad.”

That’s a thought echoed by Covington Center Arena manager Tony Wells.

“It’s hard to get local people to come out here,” he said. “We’ve had a monster truck show, circuses, all kinds of things. The local people don’t participate, so the events don’t come back.”

R.J. Gindlesperger, the front desk clerk at the Days Inn, said, “We’re almost always sold out when they have a horse show.

“I’d have to say that 60 percent generally (of the hotel’s occupancy is attributed to the arena) when the horse shows or big events are going on,” he said.

“We love rodeos,” he said.

Occupants of each of the 143 rooms are charged an 11 percent lodging tax, Gindlesperger said. Two percent of that goes to the county, which operates the arena.

After a place to shop and a place to stay, people generally will look for a place to eat, and Bill Spurlin at David’s Catfish House said it simply, “We love cowboys.”

“And cowboys loved fried fish and seafood,” he said. “Every time there is a horse show in town, we know it. We are so thankful for (the arena).”

Spurlin said depending on the size of the venue, crowds can bring in up to 15 percent in additional revenue per night for the restaurant.

“Some (events) are better than others,” he said. “Two Friday nights ago, we had a horse show and I estimated about a 15 percent increase in sales. When that happens for one or two days – it may not sound like a lot – but it is a huge help. When I start seeing big belt buckles and cowboy hats, I’m happy, because that means groups of eight to 12 people eating dinner.”

While businesses appreciate the boost, the county is in serious financial shape and commissioners are eyeing ways to reduce expenses. Privately, some have discussed doing something different with the arena. Many local citizens who see it as a luxury say “close it,” but these area merchants say no.

“I’d hate to see them close that arena,” Spurlin said. “It’s definitely helped our business. We’d still make it, but it would be a loss.”

Wilson said everyone is experiencing tough economic times but said he feels that it’s unrealistic to expect the arena to produce enough revenue to support itself.

“Tough economic times are everywhere in every way,” he said. “(The commission) may have to tighten their belt in some way, but it would be very unfortunate if the arena had to be put on entirely make your own way basis. We didn’t look at it in any other way than an economic development project.

“And I’d be surprised if any well planned arena, anywhere, makes money,” he said. “I know there are one or two around, but really if you just put up a tent, you might make some money. I think it’d be a real step backwards for the county commission to take the position that it should not be supplemented or closed.”

Wells said in comparing numbers with others, he’s only found one similar facility that shows a profit, and he believes it does so only because its electricity costs are discounted.

Wilson said the facility should not be abandoned.

“I think (the county) really needs to keep it going and everyone needs to step up and do their part to make it successful,” he said.