BLUEFIELD — Bluefield College has agreed to a 10-year lease of the Herb Sims Center, pending the approval of Bluefield City Board as the city is in “survival mode” and finding ways to overcome a huge loss of revenue later this year.

The first reading of the ordinance allowing the long-term lease was presented to the board Tuesday as a way for the city to save money and tackle a $750,000 annual loss in tax revenue, most of that (about $680,000) resulting from the pending sale of Bluefield Regional Medical Center to Princeton Community Hospital.

With a change made by state legislators on tax revenue from the sale of beer and wine, giving more territory for that collection to counties, the city is also losing about $70,000 a year.

City Manager Dane Rideout told residents at the meeting Tuesday that the B&O (Business & Occupational) tax will be lost because BRMC is for-profit and must pay it while PCH is non-profit and is exempt. When the sale if finalized, the revenue will end.

Although the overall impact of the sale of the hospital will be positive for the community, as well as the region, he said, the city must find ways to offset the permanent losses, which take away almost 25 percent of Bluefield’s $9.8 million annual revenue.

That places the city in “survival mode,” he said, and the city must maintain essential services that can’t be cut, such as emergency protection.

But the non-essential services are being looked at closely and one is parks and recreation, which has “a big price tag.”

“We are doing a study on parks and recreation services in the city,” he said, referring to a recent project headed by GAI Consultants, a Charleston-based planning firm, to not only help plan what is needed in parks and rec, but also make suggestions that maximize the economic benefits of programs and assets.

Rideout said a preliminary finding of the study, which will not be completed until September, is that the city has a “bunch of assets” related to parks and recreation, and one of those is the Herb Sims Center on Stadium Drive.

“We lose about $50,000 a year (with center),” he said, and that led the city to pursue the possibility of another entity becoming involved that may be willing to benefit from the center and lease it.

After several possibilities were contacted, Bluefield College stepped up to the plate, he said, and the college has already “been a very good partner with us” on Bowen Field and Mitchell Stadium, as well as economic development and entrepreneurship programs.

Rather than the city paying for the upkeep and losing money, BC will not only take over that responsibility but also perform upgrades and pay for the lease, he added.

However, several residents spoke at the meeting and questioned the fate of the popular youth basketball program, a tradition at the center.

Bluefield resident Mildred Hoskey asked if BC will keep the program.

Rideout said the program will continue and BC must operate it as part of the contract.

“They will also leave the cost the same,” he said, with a potential of up to a 3 percent annual increase.

The college can expose kids to their athletes and staff, he added, which will provide a “positive experience.”

“When administering a basketball program, who is better to administer that than a college that has student-athletes,” Mayor Ron Martin said.

“This fits in with the model (of maximizing assets) in the study,” Rideout said, adding that BC has plans to upgrade the alarm system, bring cardio equipment into the auditorium and make other improvements.

With BC taking over the expenses as well as paying for the lease, the city will save about $90,000 a year.

Hoskey also asked if Bluefield State College was approached and Rideout said it was, but BSC “does not need the facility” and is focused now on its on-campus housing project.

Rideout said the center will retain its name.

The city’s plan with BC reflects an overall goal to “chip away” at the pending deficit by “making smart and fair decisions,” Rideout said.

“We have also got to be more efficient,” he said, with department heads instructed to analyze budgets and come up with ways to save, being asked to tell him “how we can do more with less.”

After that analysis and discussions, a “menu of options” will be presented to the board at its next meeting.

“My goal is about to present about $2 million in cuts,” he said. “They (city board members) can say yes or no (to each option). I literally have until the first of October to make this happen (the date revenue will be lost).”

Rideout emphasized that the city is supportive of the sale of BRMC.

“From the city board’s position, we honestly believe this is a very, very good thing,” he said. “We think they (PCH) have saved that hospital. Our biggest fear was of the hospital closing.”

That would have meant not only a loss of revenue, but also a loss of many jobs as well since BRMC is the second largest employer in the city next to BSC.

Bluefield and Princeton city officials have all met together with staff of both hospitals, he said. “It was a very good conversation we had.”

The sale will not only benefit the hospitals by maximizing the use of assets, like BRMC’s cardiology department, rather than refer some patients to hospitals outside the area, he said, it will also make it easier to recruit needed medical staff and create a more enticing place to live.

“Anybody moving into an area wants quality health care,” he said, adding that the hospitals will serve the region, not just Mercer County. “It’s win-win for the region. We are going to do everything possible to make that hospital successful in providing quality health care to our citizens.”

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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