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Reception centers singing library blues

The Academy Square Building ballroom can be used for public events. Original pillars are in the center.
The Academy Square Building ballroom can be used for public events. Original pillars are in the center.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

PROVO — JoAnne Sharpe hasn't heard wedding bells in a while.

Though she's been happily betrothed for 28 years, she says her family's reception center continues to lose business to penny-pinching brides flocking to the ballroom of the Provo Library at Academy Square.

"We used to do two to three weddings a month," said Sharpe, who helps run the Sharpe Reception Center. "I've done three this year."

Sharpe isn't the only wedding hall owner dealing with declining business.

Reception halls across Utah County are citing lost business because of the cheap rental prices and services offered by the library's ballroom.

For $700 to $900, wedding couples can rent the library's 4,000-square-foot ballroom, which has 26-foot-high ceilings and a new kitchen.

That price has forced Sharpe to reduce her rental rate to $995, which includes decorations, tables and chairs, but it isn't bringing in more business or revenue.

"If our building wasn't paid for," she said, "we'd have lost it."

Deborah Tucker, owner of Somewhere Inn Time reception center in Lindon, also says she's lost customers to Academy Square's ballroom. "It has affected everybody because we can't compete with somebody who doesn't have to worry about paying their bills," Tucker said.

Tucker, along with 10 other reception center owners, has consulted with an attorney to see if there is any law that can prevent Provo from interfering with free enterprise by offering prices that the competition can't match.

But library director Gene Nelson said rental rates are "smack dab in the middle" of market prices. With 1,500 receptions a month during the busy summer wedding season, Nelson said, the ballroom can't host them all.

The library's ballroom will be rented for about 100 receptions this year, he said.

"Our business has dropped just like everybody's has dropped. We're still probably doing seven to eight receptions a month, but it's not as busy as it was," he said.

Reception center owners, however, are frustrated that taxpayers are picking up the tab for the library, which was paid for with a $16.8 million bond and donations from the community.

Center owners in Provo are especially irked. The businesses are taxed by the city, which funnels tax money to the library, which is taking away customers.

The library not only uses tax dollars for maintenance and staffing, it doesn't have to pay the same taxes other reception centers do. It can also throw wedding parties without a licensed caterer, a requirement for other reception halls.

"We can't allow outside food because we're liable," Sharpe said. "But if somebody gets sick at Academy Square and they sue, our taxpayer dollars are going to take care of that."

Nelson said property taxes are rarely used to cover ballroom expenses, which are intended to pay for themselves. "We've been making every attempt we can . . . to play nice in the sandbox," he said. "We want to have good relations with our public, which also means our businesses."

But Sharpe still points a guilty finger at the library.

Tucker said reception hall owners will ask the Provo City Council to clarify what role city services should have in the business sector.

"With all of their lawn equipment, the city could start into the yard maintenance business next," she said. "Where does it stop?"