Commissioner Murman quoted in this story from News Channel 8 on Brandon Community Advantage Center:

Merrill headed department that OK’d Regent plan

By STEVE ANDREWS | News Channel 8
Published: June 01, 2011

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The opulence of The Regent should come as no surprise to Mike Merrill, Hillsborough’s county administrator.

In 2009, Merrill was director of a county department that approved the business plan for the $7 million upscale community center near Brandon, in Riverview.. The plan outlined the extravagant high-end details of the building and how its upper floor would be rented for weddings, receptions and other private events.

Now, Merrill is overseeing an investigation of whether Hillsborough County’s $2.5 million for The Regent was spent appropriately.

The county required that the business plan be approved by its debt management department before it provided $2.5 million to the Brandon Community Advantage Center, the nonprofit group building The Regent.

“I don’t recall reading the whole thing myself,” Merrill says of the business plan.

He said he had one person in the department who reviewed all business plans.

“The purpose of it was to look at the operational feasibility of a project,” Merrill said. “Could the nonprofit that was proposing the project afford to operate it? He would focus on that and nothing else.”

County commissioners recently expressed surprise that tax dollars were the only source of funding used by the Brandon organization to pay for The Regent.

State and federal emergency management agencies contributed $3.9 million toward the project.  Hillsborough Community College provided $750,000.  The Brandon nonprofit group deeded the building to HCC once construction was finished.

The business plan said the nonprofit entity estimated $444,750 in revenue in the first year of operation. The plan also pointed out that the building’s design plan included a grand event space opening onto a covered terrace, with a grand outdoor staircase.

“Adding to the stately nature of the (Regent) are its classical columns at the porte cochere, open balusters at parapet walls, classical entablatures, and marble tile finish,” the business plan stated.

The plan did not include a commitment for private money to help pay for the building and its furnishings.  Neither did it mention a commitment for community programs.

The Brandon nonprofit group has said it will have more of a focus on community programs in the future.

Merrill said the debt management department was not interested in design or engineering.

“It’s really a situation where the scope is limited to looking at feasibility of operation,” he said.

County Commissioner Sandy Murman took office after the deal to build The Regent was approved.  She says there should have been more county oversight. “You could tell that they were trying to make it look like a private facility more than a public community center, and that should’ve been the red flag that went up,” she said.

The business plan presented to the county stated that the building’s features “establish the (Regent) as a prime venue for formal parties, … weddings, graduation celebrations, anniversary gatherings, grand reunions, elaborate functions, community get-togethers” and more.

The plan was submitted to the county by Earl Lennard, current county supervisor of elections, who was working as a consultant for the nonprofit group at the time.

The plan also showed that the group intended to keep less upscale events on the ground floor of the building. “The so-called ‘community room’ will ensure that groups that tend to be more ‘messy,’ such as children’s theatre performances and rehearsals and scouting luncheons, will be accommodated in spaces that are outfitted less expensively,” the business plan said.

The plan also stated that the building’s attributes put “it in great stead to compete in the grand space venue market that includes such Tampa options as Higgins Hall, the A La Carte Event Pavilion, Pepin’s Hospitality Centre, University Area Community Center and Centro Asturiano de Tampa.”

“We don’t need our public facilities to be competing with private,” Murman says.