The Regent events center in Hillsborough County was poorly planned and excessive from the start, a waste of public money and an example of how a pork-barrel project can divide — not unite — a community. But the Riverview facility is here, and the only issue that matters now is how to stabilize its finances and turn an embarrassing start into a source of civic pride.
Hillsborough County wants the Regent to repay $35,000 of the $2.5 million the county contributed toward the project. County commissioners say the money was misspent, and they have rejected a monthly payback plan that Regent officials say is necessary because of cash-flow problems. Commissioners are scheduled to discuss the matter next week.
The seven-year repayment plan is a nonstarter. The county should insist the Regent repay the money immediately. The group has plenty of options to raise this modest amount of cash — take out a loan, start a capital campaign. The point is that the Regent's financial constraints are not the county's problems. And the county should not accept being put in the position to act as the long-term financing arm of a private entity. The issue here is not the $35,000 but establishing a precedent for holding this and other nonprofits accountable.
Commissioners also should work with the Regent on a better governance and business model. The volunteers on the Regent board are to be commended for donating their time and energy. But overseeing a mammoth new events hall in the competitive hospitality industry requires a higher commitment of time and technical expertise. The Regent has struggled in balancing its promise to be both a first-class, hired events center in eastern Hillsborough County and a local place for community groups to meet. The agency needs a fresh set of eyes that have not been burned by the controversy over the group's mission and funding.
The Regent board can help calm the climate by being more open with commissioners. There is no justification for dragging out simple requests for budget information given that nearly $7 million in public money was spent on the opulent building. On the flip side, commissioners should realize that the Regent is not going away, and that all sides will benefit politically by coming to terms on a management and funding strategy that improves the Regent's brand name and strengthens its bottom line. The lesson is that government should not fund community centers that in reality are Taj Mahals. But the county also has an obligation, once it gets back its money, to help put the Regent on a much more solid course. It still can be a tremendous community asset.