The Regent in Riverview has held weddings and community events, corporate seminars and charity galas since its opening in 2011.
But the special events center is still working on breaking into the prom market.
Of the 12 major East Hillsborough high schools, Spoto and Riverview were the only to hold proms at the Regent this year.
Two chose the Palmetto Club at FishHawk Ranch in Lithia, but most go with venues in Tampa.
It's part of what inspired the Regent in the first place — the lack of event halls in the Brandon area. The Regent would be the east county's answer to the large special events centers in Tampa.
But it's not just about convenience, says David Lemar Jr., chairman of the Brandon Community Advantage Center board that oversees the Regent.
It's about safety.
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Lemar is a 1989 graduate of Bloomingdale High School. He had to drive to what was then the Egypt Temple Shrine Auditorium, now the A La Carte Event Pavilion on Dana Shores Drive in Tampa, about 40 minutes away.
This year his son attended Bloomingdale's prom at the Lowry Park Zoo — not quite as far as the A La Carte Event Pavilion, but still enough of a distance to concern him.
"That's not an easy drive, especially for teenagers who are used to suburban driving," Lemar said.
Some schools have held their homecoming dances at the Regent. Others have used the space for sports banquets. But most still head to Tampa for prom.
"It's crazy they would go that far across town when there is a resource in the community that's competitively priced for those types of events," Lemar said.
At most schools in the area, a teacher serves as adviser and works with senior class officers to find venues, caterers, DJs and decorations.
"I give them advice and guide them to make appropriate choices," said Katherine Proly, senior class sponsor at Bloomingdale, "but it is ultimately their decision."
Proly said she likes the idea of prom at the Regent because it's a beautiful venue close to home. But for the students at Bloomingdale who, she says, practically live at the Starbucks in Winthrop Town Centre just a few blocks from the Regent, "close to home" isn't really a selling point.
Strawberry Crest High School considered the Regent, but went with MOSI. Senior class adviser Lauren King said what ultimately convinced her on MOSI was that the cost included catering and entrance for students into the museum's regular exhibits. Both venues are about the same distance from Strawberry Crest.
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Schools also have to consider size. Strawberry Crest's senior class jumped to 430 students from about 250 this year because this was the school's first year with a graduating class from the IB program.
Brandon High School went with the Ritz Ybor. It spent too much on decorating the two rooms it rented at the Regent last year, said senior class adviser Jennifer Sherrouse. But one room would have been too small for the class size.
This is the second year Spoto High School has held its prom at the Regent, with about 300 students attending. The school began holding it there right after it opened, because students wanted a prom closer to home, said Spoto principal Phil Carr.
"Proximity was a major issue," Carr said. "They felt like some kids might not be able to go because it was so far away."
The Regent's website lists a weekend rental price for the grand ballroom at $4,200 for Saturday, and $3,800 for Friday or Sunday.
The cost to rent two suites is $3,800 for Saturday, and $3,400 for Friday or Sunday, the website says. Nonprofits receive a 10 percent discount on the weekends, said Kristen Kerr, executive director of the Regent.
The two-suite rental can seat up to 250. The grand ballroom can accommodate up to 450 seated reception-style. For an event like prom, they like to keep it to around 500 to 600 guests, Kerr said.
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After the Regent opened, some complained the prices were too high for community groups. Though it was built with public funds, it does not receive any further public funding for operational costs.
The Regent has been holding one free community event each month, as part of an agreement with the county after questions arose about how county money was spent on the project.
When the building opened in 2011, the County Commission wanted to know whether any of the $2.5 million in county tax money that was supposed to be spent on construction was spent on consultants, lawyers and taxes.
A county audit determined that $35,000 was misspent. But Lemar, a certified public accountant, said the project managers accounted for county money on reports prior to actually receiving the money — a common business practice, he said, not misspending.
The board made a down payment on the $35,000 it owes the county. The balance is due at the end of 2013.
"I expect we'll have the money," Lemar said. "Operationally it's not going to be an easy check to write, but it's something we have been planning for."
This year's audit begins this month and, once complete, it will be available to the public, he said. Also, as part of the agreement, the County Commission said it would appoint two members to the Regent's board, making meetings open to the public. The county has not yet appointed these members.
"We're waiting on them," Lemar said.
The all-volunteer board currently has six members.
"We did this because we want this building to be available to the community," Lemar said. "Those of us who have been there from the beginning believe in this very much."
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This year Kerr reached out to schools via email about proms.
"Some people still haven't heard of us," she said, though they've been "gaining speed."
"Usually it's word of mouth that really gets things going," she said.
In 2011, the Regent held a little over 100 events. Bookings are happening earlier and more often, Kerr said, and the center expects to surpass 500 events this year. The number of weekday events has been increasing because of available discounts, she said.
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2453.