Thursday, April 23, 1998, Vol. 112, No. 67

By LAURIE JOHNSON DeSoto Civic Center groundbreaking set for Friday By LAURIE JOHNSON The Daily News After more than five years on the drawing board, the DeSoto County Civic Center is about to start becoming a reality. Members of the DeSoto County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the DeSoto County Board of Supervisors officially will break ground on the $30 million facility Friday at 3 p.m. The project is expected to be completed in 2000. It is expected to have a $10 million economic impact on the surrounding area and generate about $12 million in ticket sales and other revenue annually. "We are very excited about this," said Mark Gardner, executive director of the Southaven Chamber of Commerce. "Its a project thats been several years in the making." The 148,000-square-foot facility is being built in Southaven at the southwest corner of the Church Road and I-55 interchange. Final plans for the project, which were designed by DeSoto County firm Johnson-Bailey-Henderson-McNeel Architects, include a 10,000-square-foot arena; a 450-seat, flexible-space auditorium; and about 25,000 square feet of meeting space. The general contractor for the project is Carothers Construction Inc. of Water Valley, Miss., which has built similar projects, county officials said. The facility will be owned by DeSoto County and governed by the DeSoto County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which was established last year. The new civic center is financed by a 2 percent hotel, motel and restaurant tax, which county residents approved in 1996. Revenues generated by the tax have grown from an average of about $115,000 to $125,000 per month in 1997 to about $150,000 per month, according to DeSoto County tax records. County administrator Clovis Reed said the largest amount the county has taken in during one month is $165,000. Gardner said several new hotels and restaurants in the area have increased the local tax base. According to Rex Haynes, chairman of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the 10,000-seat arena was designed as a venue for concerts, sports events, high school graduations and other larger-scale productions. Recent changes to Civic Center plans included enlarging the arena floor in order to accommodate the possibility of ice hockey and indoor soccer. "We had not anticipated the possibilities of ice hockey or indoor soccer," Haynes said. "We were also told by concert promoters 10,000 seats really needed to be our minimum in order to attract the kinds of acts we wanted at the facility," Haynes said. Original plans for a 1,400-seat performing arts center, however, had to be scaled down to the 450-seat auditorium. "We really dont have the money to build a performing arts theater of the standard of quality that we wanted," Haynes said. "And, we were told that if we built a large auditorium without the proper equipment, we would not be able to attract revenue-generating performances. "So, we decided instead to build a smaller, yet very flexible theater space that would meet the civic needs for the county. We dont expect to generate any revenues from it." Within the next four of five years, the county may decide to add the performing arts center, he said. "We wish we had all the money right now, but we do feel like one day soon this will be possible," Haynes said. Haynes said the Convention and Visitors Bureau is still searching for a manager for the facility. "We are now interviewing potential managers. We plan to hire an individual, and then ask that individual to build a management team to operate it, rather than hire a consulting firm.," he said. The management team will be part of the DeSoto County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and one of its first missions will be to market the facility. Haynes said while no major events have been booked at the facility, some state groups already have expressed interest in using it. "We have not yet officially booked anything, but we have some local people involved in statewide organizations who have already planned to bring their conventions here in the year 2000," Haynes said. Gardner said DeSoto County needed a facility for large functions such as those sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, which has about 600 members. "We hate to have to leave DeSoto County to have our functions, but unfortunately theres just no place to have them. Its going to be nice to have a facility in the county that can handle major events like that," he said. For example, the Chambers last banquet was at the Memphis Marriott, and its annual ball was held at the Adams Mark, he said. Negotiations also are still underway with the Memphis River Kings ice hockey team regarding their use of the facility, but no agreement has been reached. Haynes said even if this arrangement fell through, there were other uses for the ice rink. "It could be used not only for hockey but for shows like Disney on Ice, as well as for family skating," he said. "It will get a lot of use with or without hockey." Haynes said there also was the possibility of attracting a team from another league. "Theres a lot of growth in hockey around the country," he said. "The Western Professional Hockey League, for example, just added teams in Tupelo, Miss., and Little Rock, Ark. The Eastern Hockey League also has a team on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and they attract about 9,000 a game."