In a special meeting called by the Preston City Council on June 25, the National Trout Center's (NTC) current and future financial status was put under scrutiny. Representing the NTC was board of directors President George Spangler and director of operations Heath Sershen. All city council members were in attendance except David Collett. Several members of the NTC's board of directors also attended the meeting.

Sershen began the meeting by updating the council on the NTC's income through retail and the recently initiated fundraising drive. Halfway through the season, the NTC has sold $1,075.75 worth of retail, which has nearly matched last year's total. The fundraising drive has so far brought in 19 sponsorships for a total of $3,765.

Sershen explained the drive included a paper ask letter, door-to-door asking and an electronic ask letter. He intends to broaden the scope of the drive to other towns as other revenue pools become saturated.

Sershen mentioned a grant was setup through F&M Community Bank, which has been matching funds donated by NTC board members. Based on their efforts so far, Sershen said the NTC has seen a 1.6 percent return on their campaign, which was slightly higher than originally anticipated.

This return is based on Sershen speaking with 25 local businesses, contacting 600 people through the e-ask letter and 200 people through Facebook.

The new NTC website has been getting 700 unique visits per week. Attendance at the NTC has already exceeded last year's total at 972. Sershen briefly mentioned an intended fundraising supper as well as a planned one-fly fishing contest this September.

The NTC has been applying for grants as well. Grants from the Preston Area Community Foundation and the Christianson Family Fund were received and Sershen said an additional $5,000 match would be secured before the end of the season. They applied for a Bush Foundation grant, which is a non-earmarked grant for $25,000 to be used for anything the NTC needs to use it for. Sershen reported the NTC as having an income of $11,790.75 from the April 1 season start date.

Spangler then addressed the 2013 budget. With a new 2013 projected budget, the NTC will incur a shortfall of an estimated $43,511, which was just over $11,000 less than the previous shortfall estimate.

Spangler showed the council how the reduction in the shortfall was calculated based on budget projections he labeled "ultra conservative."

Spangler continued, saying, "We hope to have advice from the council and EDA (Economic Development Authority) about the kinds of numbers that are reasonable for fulfilling the mission of the NTC and carrying forward the program."

The NTC incurred much of the shortfall when they hired Sershen as a full-time director of operations. Spangler explained the point of Sershen's job was to manage day-to-day operations and develop revenue streams for the future.

Councilman Robert Maust asked Spangler if it would be practical for the NTC to become its own business. Spangler replied saying that was the eventual plan, although the NTC would always be tied to the city of Preston.

"We don't see them as independent entities," he shared, adding it seemed like a natural marriage between the city and the NTC. However, Spangler explained there was nothing constraining the city from deciding the NTC as wrong for Preston and getting rid of it.

Councilman Charles Sparks brought up the fact that the NTC was a 501(c)3 or non-profit organization and could be its own fiscal agent.

Maust said it had become confusing to deal with two sets of books between the NTC and the city.

Spangler agreed, but said there was nothing that couldn't be reconciled since the NTC was transparent in its money management. He added that he could not know when the NTC could become its own business since the revenue streams have not been fully vetted yet. He referred to the founding document that was passed by the EDA in 2009, which said the NTC was worth trying for at least five years. The NTC has been open around four years.

Spangler said, "We're doing our best to make the NTC a viable entity and a genuinely public institution." He commented further that the NTC has been doing much better in its early years than other environmental learning centers of its kind.

Returning to discussion on the revenue shortfall, Maust asked Spangler if he thought the city was responsible to fund the shortfall. Spangler said the NTC had asked Preston to underwrite their budget and they had not known what the shortfall was going to be at that time.

"We felt the council would back the activities of the NTC," he said. "The council isn't responsible, but they were informed that we weren't going to fulfill our revenue expectations."

The total budget for the NTC for 2013 was roughly $97,000, much of which was tied up in salaries.

City administrator Joe Hoffman said the total contribution toward expenses the city would make would be between $65,000 and $75,000. The city had incurred around $8,000 in expenses in June, which the NTC had not paid them back for.

The city council approved a resolution requiring the NTC to pay the $8,000 out of their account in F&M Community Bank. Hoffman asked Spangler what the estimate for revenue would be for the remainder of 2013. Spangler said it would most likely be double, but that many revenue pools had been unexplored.

"Rochester is not outside the realm of possibility of bringing support," he stated. "We are trying to market the NTC as a regional center that grows to a national center."

Around 76 percent of NTC visitors come from outside of Fillmore County.

Maust asked if the 2014 budget would require the same amount of spending from the city. Spangler said the NTC board of directors would be putting together several budget proposals for the city and the EDA to consider for 2014.

EDA member Chuck Aug said the NTC would be required to also revise their budget for the remainder of 2013. Aug suggested the NTC be given a dollar amount, so they could structure their programming accordingly.

Sparks agreed saying, "We need to keep this concept alive, but scaled back."

Maust said he thought the NTC should be presenting their dollars request and reasons to the city instead of the other way around. "We don't intend to manage the NTC," he explained.

Spangler agreed with a decision by the council to have a revised 2013 operating budget put together before another special council meeting on July 9. The city's July 15 meeting will have the NTC present their 2014 budget.

Following the meeting, Sershen said he wasn't surprised by the council's request. "There is lots to do in a very short amount of time," he said.

He added that he understood the NTC couldn't operate with a shortfall, but that the NTC has lots of options and plenty of bright minds to get through it.