There is plenty of blame to go around for the opulent, publicly funded community center in suburban Hillsborough County. State and local officials should have vetted the project before committing millions of dollars in tax money. The federal government should have looked at its suitability as a hurricane shelter before doling out public disaster assistance funds. And the private board that oversees the facility should have ensured from the start that public groups had more opportunities to use the facility.
The $7 million center, called the Regent, opened in January. Billed as a community center for the eastern suburbs of Brandon, the facility was built with public funds: $2 million from the state, $2.5 million from the county and $1.3 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (given plans for the building to double as a hurricane shelter). A public tenant, Hillsborough Community College, contributed $750,000 for classroom space on the lower floor of the two-story facility.
Even though public money paid to construct the building, the facility is largely rented out for private parties. The marble facade, wood flooring, sweeping terrace and grand ballroom are tailor-made for weddings, banquets and other high-priced events. County Commission Chairman Al Higginbotham has asked the county staff to investigate whether tax money was spent appropriately. Commissioner Kevin Beckner wants to hear what public purpose the building serves.
These criticisms are fair — to a point. The commission has an obligation to review how the Brandon nonprofit spent public money, how it hired consultants and contractors and what plans were in place to allow civic and community groups to use the tax-funded facility. There was an understanding going in that the nonprofit would augment public construction money with private donations. That did not happen. The commission needs a formal audit to sort out the facts.
Still, the county has its own culpability here. The concept all along was to build a luxurious community center: one glitzy enough to attract high-priced events that typically forced east county residents to book in downtown or West Shore. And the business plan all along was to book weddings and parties to cover the costs of operating and maintaining the building. So it's not like the commission should be surprised.
The Regent board should overhaul its rental prices and public outreach so that civic groups can make more use of the building. It was a reach for the federal government to fund this political pork project as a hurricane shelter. The county needs to be more vigilant about the capital funding it extends to nonprofits — especially in an era when the government is asking charities to do more on the public's behalf. The Regent is off to a rocky start. But it is, in all respects, a public asset, and the county has an interest in having it succeed. Too bad this concern for the bottom line was absent when it mattered.