NEW PORT RICHEY — Saturday marks the fifth anniversary of the opening of New Port Richey's Recreation and Aquatic Center.
But City Manager John Schneiger believes that due to woeful marketing efforts, many people have no idea the facility — sometimes called the city's crown jewel — even exists.
The center at 6630 Van Buren St. is in financial crisis, losing an estimated $1.8 million this year. That includes debt service and the inability to generate memberships to offset the costs of running the facility.
Now, because of slow response to the annual summer camps at the center, Schneiger has temporarily hired a marketing firm to get the word out.
His plan surprised some when he sought City Council approval to hire deChant Public Relations & Media Management — run by former council member Marilynn deChant and partner Lia Gallegos — to a three-month contract. The city will pay the firm $3,500-a-month.
"I just felt a sense of urgency. The city has never taken an approach to marketing the center whatsoever, which makes to no sense to me," Schneiger said. "And I think the council has realized not marketing it for five years was a mistake."
Schneiger said deChant will be paid with funds already allotted in this year's budget for a marketing director position. He said he did not go through a bid process because of the emergency situation the center faces.
deChant said she is thrilled at the chance to market the center and help the city turn things around for it financially.
"We are really excited to get this going," deChant told the Times.
"I have real comfort level with them," Schneiger said of the firm. "Particularly, Lia is very talented in the area of social media which I think the city has never really taken advantage of. And they are both very active in the community and obviously have the city's best interest at heart."
deChant said she and Schneiger discussed her past service on the council.
"Why should I be penalized for my past service to the community? I am offering skills that I have honed for years to the city," deChant said.
Prior to signing a contract with deChant, Schneiger announced to the council his intentions, which he said garnered support from a majority, though he said council member Judy DeBella Thomas expressed disappointment that the executive director of Greater New Port Richey Main Street was not given an opportunity to market the center.
The Main Street program received a $25,000 grant this budget season from the city, and DeBella Thomas argued the organization should get a crack at marketing the center. Executive Director Beth Fregger acknowledged she made a pitch to Schneiger to market the center.
"I was surprised," Fregger said of Schneiger signing deChant. "I thought there was going to be a real search. But in the short-term, I think hiring somebody local for this immediate need was not a bad idea. I am really interested in long term."
But Schneiger said Main Street may not be an option for long-term marketing of the firm as Main Street's mission of downtown economic development is "apples and oranges" compared to marketing the recreation center.
Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe said he had no problem with the temporary hire without putting it out to bid.
"They're certainly capable," he said of deChant Public Relations. "And it's certainly within the city manager's purview at the cost level and length of the contract. This really needed to happen yesterday due to the lack of promotion of the summer camps, so I'm not going to second guess it."
Mayor Bob Consalvo said deChant's past service to the city will be an asset in the coming months in marketing the center.
"I think they are really enthusiastic to help," Consalvo said. "And I think Ms. deChant's knowledge of the city will really help her get the job done."