By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL — It has been six weeks since the Slidell City Council set rental fees for using the new Slidell Municipal Auditorium, and to date, organizations are not lining up in droves to use the building.
The council haggled for months over new fees for using all city buildings, but the site getting the most attention was the city auditorium, which is one of the two largest facilities of that type on the eastern side of St. Tammany Parish.
Following several meetings when the issue was punted back-and-forth with no decision, the council voted on May 22 to set basic fees at $2,000 for non-profit charitable groups, a $2,500 fee for other non-profits, and a $3,000 fee for organizations that are for-profit, public agencies or political groups.
Since that time, Auditorium Manager Karen McQueen reported she has had “between two and three calls a day” from groups interested in renting the facility, however, very few takers at that price.
After a wedding reception was held in the auditorium this past Saturday, there is currently only one booking for the rest of 2012 and only two bookings so far for all of 2013.
Before the new fees were set in place, city officials said the auditorium used to be as little as $500 for as much as three days of use, and even for free to some non-profit organizations or church groups.
“I think it’s still a shock to a lot of groups who didn’t know what the new rental fees are,” McQueen said. “It was so low before so I think the rentals will start coming when people get used to the new fees.”
When the council approved the fees, one of their most controversial decisions of the past year, the argument was about being certain fees were set at a level so the auditorium would be highly utilized. The building was recently built brand new for $8 million, with FEMA paying $7 of that cost.
City officials said they plan to revisit the fees in 18-months to see if they are set properly.
“We’ve had a lot of interest, that’s for sure,” McQueen added. “But so far we have had some groups who believe it is too expensive.”
The rental price was set to be similar to the Northshore Harbor Center, the other facility of the same size. However, some council members wanted the city to be lower so more organizations would utilize it.
Councilman Lionel Hicks said he believes it is still too early to react to the slow start for rentals.
“It’s too early to panic,” he said. “We still need to get a hard number of the true cost for the city to operate a weekend event, including the cost for our labor and other things. We may have to re-evaluate it if the mayor deems it necessary, but for now we need to let it take its course.”