Two companies vying to manage city facility

Nathan Baker • Feb 27, 2014 at 12:20 PM

With a lucrative contract on the line, two companies with very different philosophies vied for the Public Building Authority’s favor Wednesday for the management of Johnson City’s Millennium Centre.

Both companies, the Charleston, S.C.-based Wilderman Group and the convention center’s current management company, Sodexo, said they could maximize economic development and minimize annual subsidies from the city.

The difference, however, was the proposed levels of staffing and use of in-house food service employees.

Touting the century of hospitality experience shared by the firm’s leaders, John Wilderman, founder of the Wilderman Group, said the best way to reduce the amount of money the city transfers to the center each year is to reduce labor costs.

The group’s other managed convention centers operate with the bare minimum of full-time staff. Its Gastonia, N.C., property, comparable in size to the Millennium Centre, is staffed by four, with catering and other services contracted to outside firms, a move he said would be mimicked in Johnson City if the company was awarded the contract.

By dropping labor costs and increasing revenue by landing more business at the center, Wilderman proposed reducing the city’s subsidy per square foot from its current level, near $27, to approximately $16 in the first year.

Sodexo representatives, including the center’s current general manager, Ken Misterly, said the company’s current focus on developing quality staff is what secures repeat business.

“We know what it takes to run this building, to staff for events in this building,” Misterly said, underscoring the company’s history with the venue.

Early in the history of the Millennium Centre, he said local restaurants were allowed to cater events, but that practice was discontinued because of liability and control concerns.

The center now employs Executive Chef Jean-Claude Seruga to select and manage quality menus in-house, he said.

Whichever company is selected for the contract, it could have a significant regional impact on the city’s coffers and the local economy.

The center, after depleting most of its reserves built up by selling land along West State of Franklin Road, will soon need infusions of cash from Johnson City to cover operational expenses.

The meeting venue, intended to be an economic driver in Johnson City, brings in millions of tourism dollars each year from hosting conventions and other functions.

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