Plans to revamp operations of Peru’s Civic Center riled residents during Monday night’s City Council meeting, but officials promise they are going to work toward a solution that keeps everyone happy.
“This is not death,” Council member Kathleen Plothow said at the end of a lengthy discussion about the center during a reading of the proposed city budget. “The Civic Center is not closing. We can bring somebody back, right now it is not in the budget.”
Questions about the center, a historic home used for catered events run by an on-site director on East Riverside Drive, arose after officials removed the salary for Jayme Arthur, the center’s director, from the proposed budget for 2021.
In a letter, posted to the Mayor’s Facebook earlier that same day and read at the meeting, Hewitt said the move to eliminate the director’s position was a difficult decision, but he had no intention of shuttering the Civic Center.
“I am planning on reconstructing how it is operated,” the letter said. “Being the Mayor of Peru I must first be mindful of how the taxpayer’s money is spent.”
The topic brought numerous members of the public to Council Chambers on Monday, with some lingering in the lobby and others speaking in support of the center and keeping it open.
What Hewitt said in the letter, the meeting and in a follow-up interview with the Tribune is that he was interested in moving toward having the center run by an “event coordinator” rather than an on-site director.
The reason, he explained, is purely financial.
According to those who spoke at the meeting, the director’s deal to operate the center included a roughly $17,000 salary plus benefits. In addition, she kept 95 percent of revenue that came in from food sales and lived in the center’s living quarters rent free with utilities paid.
Cash outlay, officials agreed, was in excess of $35,000 and over the last few years, the city saw between $4,000 and $5,000 come back from food sales.
Hewitt said that wasn’t acceptable and that he would prefer hiring a coordinator who still got some percentage or a commission on the events held at the center but whose deal was not causing it to operate at a loss.
“I want it to at least break even,” he said at one point in the discussion.
Council member Betsy Edwards-Wolfe said she was concerned that the decision to change operations was only made public through the deletion of a budget line item and not discussed with the community at large.
“There doesn’t seem like there is much of a plan,” she said.
Council member Steve Anderson suggested there were plenty of questions remaining about how much the event coordinator plan would save. Without a designated on-site person, keeping up the property and cleaning after events, the city would have to pay for those services.
The discussion ended with a loose agreement to form a committee to seek a resolution and keep the center, now in its 75th year, in operation.
Hewitt told the Tribune on Thursday he supported those efforts.
“I am working with the council, we are getting the committee up,” he said.