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By Austin R. Ramsey

Published Jan 9, 2019 | Messenger-Inquirer

The Owensboro RiverPark Center Board of Directors is in negotiations with Spectra, the Owensboro Convention Center and Sportscenter venue management company, that could result in the company taking over partial management control of operations there.

Sources say the board initiated a request for proposals several months ago that resulted in three total bids from outside contractors. Spectra, a sports and entertainment firm based in Philadelphia, was among them, and Board Chair Jeff Ebelhar called it "the most viable candidate" at this stage of the negotiations. With Executive Director Roxi Witt's retirement being considered in one or two years, Ebelhar said the board entered into strategic planning discussions more than two years ago that have centered on the nonprofit's future in regional performing arts and civic entertainment.

"We have been doing some strategic planning and thinking about what our options might be as we move forward over the next 25 years," Ebelhar said Tuesday. "(We have been) trying to figure out what is our best course of action. Do we engage some outside consultants to assist us or do we hire somebody?"

Part of the ongoing discussions among board members do include whether to simply hire another executive director in Witt's absence, Ebelhar said. Negotiations with Spectra, he added, should not be interpreted as any final action the board will ultimately take. The RiverPark Center is a private, nonprofit entity neither subject to open records nor open meetings laws. The request for proposals, therefore, was only described to the Messenger-Inquirer by Ebelhar as having to do with outsourcing "programming, marketing and perhaps facility or operations management."

It's unclear as of yet whether that would have an impact on the dozen or so staff the center already employs, but Ebelhar did say the negotiations do not threaten the board's overall control of the nonprofit entity. The city of Owensboro owns the 60,000 square feet of space the center currently occupies, and city officials said they are not a part of the negotiations, nor are they currently considering selling that space.

Mayor Tom Watson said the city did recommend that the RiverPark Center at least consider Spectra's venue management services, as such an arrangement would be in the community's benefit.

"We were not pushing for it, but we did make an offer, because we knew there was going to be a change in leadership over there and we were planning out for the future," Watson said. "We thought Spectra may work out, and we wanted to see if it would, even if it was on a trial basis. It was not a demand, though. We did not say, 'You've got to do this.' I just think it's helpful for every one of our entertainment venues to know what each other are bidding on and to work together. We have three different venues that can do three different things, and if somebody in one venue squeezes in or has a whole bunch of extra space for one event that could have gone elsewhere and made the crowd bigger and been more successful, that's a shame. At least they will all know what's going on."

The city's relationship with the RiverPark Center is much like its relationship with the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum; it owns each entity's spaces but leaves control up to individual boards and directors. The mayor said no such offer has been made to the bluegrass museum because its new, state-of-the-art center downtown "does not compete in the same genre."

Officials with the RiverPark Center say they hope to ratify some sort of an agreement or decide on a future administration sometime this year. Other board members who were reached Tuesday declined to speak on the record.

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