Guerneville veterans hall operator pulls out

A little more than a year after it signed a 15-year agreement to manage the Guerneville Veterans Hall, a west county nonprofit its handing control back to the county.

The group, River to Coast Children's Services, said it expanded programs at the facility but could not generate enough new revenue to pay for the high cost of running the aging building.

The county owns seven veterans buildings that are meant to serve as memorials for veterans and provide a place for them to meet. But the decades-old buildings have accrued high maintenance costs over the years. Last year, the county estimated annual expenses at $646,000.

In 2012, the county turned over management of the Guerneville Veterans Hall and four other centers to nonprofits to save money.

Sonoma County's Director of General Services, Jos?Obreg?, said Guerneville's situation is unique and that operating deals are working well at the veterans halls in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Cotati and Sebastopol.

In Sebastopol, the Sebastopol Center for the Arts is managing the veterans building and has actually moved in. That allows the arts group to pay for building upkeep with a combination of revenue from programs it offers and fees from other organizations that use the hall, said Linda Galletta, executive director of the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.

The local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter, as well as other nonprofits, still use the space, too.

The Center for the Arts has also raised nearly a half-million dollars from private donors, Galletta said. With that money, it has installed air conditioning and sound panels, replaced flooring, and painted and re-wired the building.

"The community has seen a real infusion of energy here," she said.

United Camps, Conferences and Retreats, a Petaluma nonprofit that specializes in running event facilities, is operating the Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Cotati buildings. UCCR has been able to use its resources and experience to expand events at the facilities and generate enough money to cover operating costs, according to Mike Carr, president and CEO of the nonprofit.

When UCCR placed a bid to manage the three veterans buildings, it also considered the Guerneville Veterans Hall but decided the building would be difficult to run given its relatively small size and its remote location, Carr said.

"It's a very challenging building," he said.

River to Coast had run a program for children and families at the veterans hall for years when it took over management. It expanded the events offered there by about 20 percent, but the increased use was not enough to pay for the high costs of upkeep, said David Cameron, program manager for River to Coast.

The roughly 8,000-square-foot building, which started out as a school in the 1920s, is the oldest of the county's veterans buildings.

The building has some challenges, Obreg? acknowledged. Those include windows that need to be replaced, no air conditioning, a small size, and the need for more awareness in the community.

Cameron estimated that his nonprofit would have to increase its revenues by about 50 percent to cover the costs of running the building. The nonprofit decided to end its lease and hand back management to the county by March 30, 2014.

The county's short-term goal is to continue running the building and maintain the services currently offered there, Obreg? said.

"We're very appreciative of the group that has been running" the Guerneville hall, he said. "We want to ensure the building's success for the community, so we're going to operate it in the short-term."

But Obreg?'s department is also studying whether it can afford to run the building in the long-term or if it wants to once again seek an outside contractor.

"All options are on the table," he said.