County eyes RFPs to run veterans building
Changes are in store for the 60-year-old Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building, which lost $117,000 last year and is now the object of a search for new management and innovative uses.
After what 1st District Supervisor Valerie Brown describes as "years of meetings" among county and city interests, plans are underway to circulate a request for proposals (RFP) to turn the under-utilized facility into a more efficient and money-making resource while still keeping true to its primary mission of
serving the needs of local veterans and other community groups.
Within the next three to four weeks, an RFP will be published seeking proposals to take over the operation and management of the building and its surrounding property. If all goes as planned and a suitable match is made, the new manager could take over as soon as this fall.
Brown and Caryl Hart, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, met Friday at the vets building with representatives of the City of Sonoma and local residents representing veterans, businesses, the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau and nonprofit organizations, including the Sonoma Community Center and Vintage House.
Brown and Hart told those present that while the county was not interested in selling the facility, it did want to get out of the business of managing it, and losing a lot of money in the process. One simple reason for the change, Hart told the gathering, is that the county lost $1.7 million last year in the operation of seven county veterans halls and one additional center in Occidental.
But that's not the only reason for the new initiative. Both Brown and Hart agree that the veterans building can become the focus of a private-public partnership that can add significantly to the business health of Sonoma by offering expanded convention and meeting space for both corporate customers and private events, such as weddings and parties.
The RFP will outline the general terms the county is seeking, but will leave room for applicants to share their individual visions for improving, remodeling, enhancing and generally upgrading the facility as part of their plans to take on its management. Consideration will be given to applicants with experience in facilities management, how well they are funded and supported and the depth of their community support.
Built in 1951, the 16,000-square-foot facility has undergone several renovations over the years, and is in "... excellent condition," Hart said. What is lacking at the county level is the staffing, community connections and skilled leadership to market it effectively. Total revenue last year was $94,350, but expenses exceeded that revenue by more than $117,000. And while veterans groups use the facility at no charge for approximately six meetings a month, there is a lot of time where the rooms are not used at all.
Brown emphasized that veterans will still have first priority and that the county would expect the building would still be offered as an affordable community resource. But, current the demand for the facility is not that great and only about 23 percent of the available hours are committed. That leaves a lot of potential for growth if the appearance and amenities of the building can be significantly enhanced.
Wendy Peterson, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, said her organization has had an ongoing interest is bringing local interested parties together to see if the facility could not only be improved and made more attractive for events, but also more financially sustainable by better marketing and management. She offered the marketing resources of the visitors bureau to help with the marketing end.
While declining to state how much time a management agreement would cover, Brown and Hart indicated that the county would consider the vision and scope of each proposal.
Marshall Bauer, owner of Wine Country Party Rentals, suggested that the facility be looked at as a community asset that could be marketed much like hotels and other large hospitality venues. But Jerry Orme, whose group Sons In Retirement (SIRS) meets there regularly at the building, wanted assurance that such a change in management would not push out community groups such as SIRS and others.
Brown stated that the needs of the community groups would be included in the RFP.
An additional consideration was raised about Arnold Field, adjacent to the building and also owned by the county. Currently it is operated under a separated agreement by the Sonoma Valley Athletic Club, but Brown said she hoped that whomever took over the vets building would also consider eventually agreeing to manage the ball field too. The RFP, however, would not require that, she added.
At the same time the veterans building RFP is being prepared, an RFP for management of the Friday morning farmers market will be released in hopes of finding interested parties who can propose a fresh vision and energy to the popular, year-round, weekly event.
The market will move to an adjacent parking lot in April while its current site - the lot between Depot Park and Arnold Field - is repaved. Brown said she hopes new management for the market will be largely in place by the time the market moves back to its familiar location. Details on both RFPs will be published in the Index-Tribune as soon as they are made available.