PITTSBORO — As North Carolina remains in Phase Two of the state’s three-phase coronavirus reopening plan, some entities have used the last four months as an opportunity to shift their focus from …
Thanks for reading Chatham County’s leading news source! Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing to the News + Record – you can do so by clicking here.
PITTSBORO — As North Carolina remains in Phase Two of the state’s three-phase coronavirus reopening plan, some entities have used the last four months as an opportunity to shift their focus from profits to public health.
This was the case for the Chatham County Agriculture and Conference Center (CCACC) — the county’s largest multipurpose venue — which was among many organizations affected by Gov. Roy Cooper’s announcement of the statewide stay-at-home order on March 27.
Cooper’s order banned the gatherings of 10 or more people, a decision that had direct implications for the CCACC, which earns most of its revenue from renting out its space for large gatherings.
From there, the CCACC decided to use its space to help those in the community impacted by the coronavirus.
“It was a quick pivot when it was readily apparent that this was not going away anytime soon and events were having to be canceled,” said Carolyn Miller, Chatham County’s human resources and risk management director. “We converted a portion of our space into the central receiving and distribution point for Emergency Management.”
Hall A of the exhibit space – which offers a roll-up door with ground-level access and concrete floors, perfect for unloading and storing personal protective equipment (PPE) — has been converted into the central receiving and distribution point, where CCACC staff fills any supply request that comes through Chatham County Emergency Management.
They’ve received shipments of a variety of items from the state, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other agencies, including meals for the Chatham County Council on Aging, face masks, medical gowns and cleaning supplies, which are then distributed to those who need them.
“You hear a lot about other areas around the state and the nation that don’t have supplies, but I don’t think that’s ever been a problem here in Chatham County,” said Larilee Isley, event coordinator for the CCACC. “We have been able to get the supplies, stock the supplies and fill the orders as needed.”
The Center has filled supply requests for some of the county’s long-term medical care facilities, fire departments, police departments and nonprofit organizations, as well as Chatham County Schools, among others.
Some staff members have also acted as “runners,” driving to pick up supplies at various locations if they aren’t able to get them delivered directly to the CCACC.
“I’m very proud of (the staff) because this is not something they have experience doing,” said Miller, “but they jumped on it and looked at it as a way to continue to maintain the space and operate to the benefit of other folks.”
The CCACC is a mixed-use building that is essentially split into two sections. When looking at the front entrance of the building, the left half houses many agricultural organizations, including the offices for N.C. Cooperative Extension, Chatham County’s Soil & Water Conservation Department and the North Carolina Forestry Service, among others.
The right half of the building is the rentable conference center space, which hosts events ranging from weddings to birthday parties to government meetings.
Miller estimates that around 70% of the space’s usage is for “internal” purposes, which includes Chatham County Board of Commissioners meetings and Chatham County Schools events. The other 30% consists of private revenue events.
The portion of the exhibit space not being used for Emergency Management services continues to host some internal meetings with a few minor changes, including newly integrated social distancing measures and additional cleaning/sanitation practices to keep staff and attendees safe.
However, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has caused the CCACC to either cancel or postpone all scheduled private events since March and issue full refunds to customers for their deposits.
“Folks were understanding to the extent they could be when their events were canceled,” Miller said. “We also decided very quickly at that point to issue full refunds. We told them, ‘This is outside of your control, it’s outside of our control, we’re going to issue a full refund,’ so there’s no loss on the part of the client.”
Among the canceled events was Chatham County Spring Ag Fest, scheduled to take place in late March. More than 2,700 people attended last year’s event, which is meant to showcase the agricultural highlights of the county.
All of the cancellations and refunds have undoubtedly forced the CCACC to take a financial hit, but despite all of the money lost during the spring season, Miller said the Center exceeded its revenue estimate for the just-ended fiscal year by $2,000.
“A lot of the events we had scheduled for this summer have either rescheduled or postponed, with some cancellations like birthday parties and things like that which canceled completely,” said Isley, “but weddings, pastor appreciations, those sorts of things have just been postponed, so I wouldn’t consider those a complete loss of revenue.”
The CCACC has modified its revenue estimate for fiscal year 2021 due to the uncertainty of when private events will be able to resume, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll hit the target mark.
While financial unpredictability is certainly a major concern, the challenges don’t end there.
“We really started making good momentum with people knowing we’re here, gaining momentum on the revenue end and people seeing our facility as a good place to hold a retreat or a meeting,” said Miller. “My fear, long term, is that there will be an impact on people’s willingness to gather in large groups and that momentum that we started to experience, we’re going to have to recreate.”
Despite the glaring challenges it’s created, this four-month-long “break” has provided the CCACC with a couple of positive opportunities that staff has taken advantage of, including preventative maintenance on the building and the audiovisual system.
All of the time spent without in-person events — and the increasing demand for remote meetings — has also given the Center a chance to explore the idea of hosting virtual or hybrid events, including commissioners meetings, which gives residents the chance to attend them from home, an option that will likely continue in the future.
“If we have that expertise and that technology, then we can offer that opportunity for organizations to come in and broadcast their virtual meeting from our facility,” said Miller. “I don’t think we did nearly as many virtual meetings as we could have before, but that sure is going to be a major option now.”