Members of the public line up agains the wall of a crowded Maksoutoff Room to testify about changes to the Centennial Building's fee structure. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

The Sitka Assembly began a conversation on Tuesday about possible changes to the way Centennial Hall charges fees. Right now, community groups and nonprofit organizations can use most of the building for free.

A plan to charge nonprofits to use the building didn’t get much love from the audience or the Assembly.

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The proposal to charge brought testimony from a cross-section of the building’s users: quilters, crafters, dancers, historical society board members, youth advocates, artists and a few private citizens, all of whom lined up along the wall to take their turn at the microphone.

None of the organizations who testified were in favor of the changes. And most said they can’t afford to pay for consistent use of the hall, and would be forced to meet elsewhere.

As it turned out, the Assembly seemed to be humming the same tune.

“I have a feeling you were preaching to the choir,” Assembly member Thor Christianson said.

Before we go any further, let’s tell you what all this is about.

The city suggested changing the fee structure at Centennial Hall. Nonprofit groups can use most rooms in the city-owned convention center for free. Those range from the large Exhibit Room, which holds about 150 people, to the tiny Davis Room, which starts getting crowded at about 15 people.

Still, the building is not entirely free to nonprofits. Everybody pays for use of the huge auditorium, which can seat up to 500 people, or to use the commercial kitchen. And if a nonprofit group is having a fundraiser, or an event where it charges admission, it pays then, too, no matter what room it’s using.

Centennial Hall costs nearly $500,000 to operate. The building made about $63,000 last year, with nearly half of its use falling into the free nonprofit category. The idea behind the change in policy was to bring in some more money. Centennial Hall manager Don Kluting said if building use stayed steady, the change in fees would bring in an additional $40,000.

But Kluting didn’t appear too enthusiastic about the changes. When asked his opinion by Mayor Cheryl Westover, he gave a cautious recap of how the issue came up in the first place. Assembly member Mike Reif asked Kluting what he thought might happen if the fees went into effect.

“Use would substantially go down, for sure,” Kluting said. “There are groups, you’ve heard this evening, like the quilt show, that cannot afford it. They don’t bring in any revenue. They don’t have a revenue source. So I’m sure the groups like that would go down.”

Christianson agreed.

“I think if we do this, it will cost the city money,” Christianson said. “Our net result will be a loss in funds. I can tell you I’m involved in the SEREMS symposium that Dave mentioned.”

SEREMS is Southeast Regional EMS, which holds a conference in Sitka every year.

“I will guarantee you,” he said, “if SEREMS has to pay for the Centennial Building it will never be in Sitka again.”

Other Assembly members chimed in to say they agreed that charging the nonprofit groups would scare off more business than it would scare up, and the idea appeared to die. Other parts of the policy change are still very much alive, including an evaluation of the building’s hours of operation. The new policy calls for charging groups an hourly rate for events that take place outside normal business hours.

Silent for most of the discussion was Assembly member Pete Esquiro. Near the end of the Assembly’s deliberation, he pointed out that the building costs a lot of money to operate, and said he hopes to hear more about that from the public when the issue comes up again.

“Out of all the wonderful things that were said tonight, I didn’t hear too many ideas for solutions,” Esquiro said. “I would challenge you, when we bring this back again, that you bring back some suggested solutions to this dilemma, because it’s not going to go away.”

Assembly members are expected to discuss Centennial Hall at their next regular meeting on March 13.