By Zachary Horner, The Sanford Herald
SANFORD - The Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center first opened in 1991 as the Lee County Civic Center, taking on the name of the former lieutenant governor and Lee County native Dennis Wicker a few years later.
In the 25 years since, the building has hosted events from business expos, quinceaneras, weddings, martial arts tournaments and even pro wrestling from the House of Pain promotion.
The civic center averages a little under 1,000 events annually, bringing in nearly 100,000 people to those events. The building is close to 36,000 square feet, with an exhibition hall, lecture hall, multiple classrooms and an executive suite with a boardroom and small kitchen area.
David Foster, who has been the director of the civic center for the last five years, remembers the building being built while he was a student at Lee County Senior High School, which sits across the street. Foster sees working at the civic center as part of giving back to his home.
"That's one of the things that brought me back to Sanford," he said. "It's my hometown, and being able to contribute a little bit of something positive to the community, I want to be part of."
Foster talked to The Herald about the building's capacity, how many people it takes to run events and the hardest part of his job.
What is the relationship between the civic center and Central Carolina Community College?
We are owned and operated by the community college. Fifty percent of our business is fee-exempt, and that's anything we do for the community college, the school system or county government. We like to say students of the community college start and end with us. We have an enrollment period and registration and then graduation. They'll see us first thing before they start classes and they'll see us last thing once they complete classes.
We're sometimes the open door and the front door of the community college and the community. We have folks coming from out-of-state, other parts of the state. And this is their first impression of the college and this community. We're hoping to add some art and pottery exhibits here in the future to help show what this community is all about.
What kind of events does the civic center host?
These are events that we've all done in past year here -- conferences, business presentations, award ceremonies, trade shows, business meetings, fundraisers, banquets, wedding ceremonies, wedding receptions, holiday parties, reunions, quinceaneras, company parties, dances, church events, anniversary parties, movie screenings, seminars, concerts, recitals. You name it, we have done it here in the past year.
What's the first thing you do when someone books an event?
The first thing we do is go to our calendar, see if the event date that you're looking for is open. We have a program called FASTbook, a booking program. Whatever your venue may be, you want a program so you're not double-booking yourself, somewhere that's controlling how you book. So we look at the date, see how many people, what size space you need. Sometimes we've had two events at one time, and that's very doable.
Our dates, especially our Saturdays, book a year out. So if you're looking at a Saturday, I'm probably looking at February next year before I can work you in. For every Saturday we book, we turn one or two events away.
For a big event like a conference or expo, how much time goes into setting up and how many people do you use in setting it up?
We have three full-time employees, and the rest of our staff is about 12 other gentlemen and ladies (who) are all part-time. Some of them work here as secondary jobs, some of them are college students that will work here. I've got a guy who's a pastor, a guy who works in law enforcement. Those are the guys who come in when a quinceanera is over on Saturday night and you've got church Sunday morning, well, we're working from midnight to about four o'clock in the morning. It makes for some long nights for some of us.
What's the hardest part of your job?
When you work in the hospitality business, which is what this is, you have to be flexible. It's not 8-5, Monday through Friday. You have to be here at midnight sometimes, you have to be here early in the morning sometimes. You have to have a flexible schedule. It's not "banker's hours," as some people call them. That's the toughest part of the job. Sometimes it's also the funnest part of the job because it's not the same thing every day. Something's different every day. Sometimes it's fun to help a client navigate through it.
What's the importance to the community of an event location like this?
It's a place that you can host events. It's a place you can keep your business local. If not, you'd have to go out to the Triangle area or Fayetteville markets. It's a tremendous asset. It's about three-quarters of a million dollars to the local economy. When they built this facility, we didn't have a major branded hotel in this town. Hampton Inn was the first one that came, and they didn't break ground until we broke ground. After Hampton Inn, five years later Holiday Inn Express, five years after that we got the Comfort Suites. They saw the potential as well.
David Foster, director of the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center, was a student at Lee County Senior High School across the street when the building was being built. Now, he runs operations for the center, which hosts just under 1,000 events a year.