Loose rein on Columbia's horses

Costly Horse Center provides benefits few residents seem to want

$1.5 million lost since 1986

September 19, 1999|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Of all the recreational facilities that make Columbia one of the region's most attractive communities, the 88-acre Horse Center stands out -- for the wrong reasons.

Few residents use it. Few think it's important. And, year after year, it loses money -- their money -- with losses totaling an estimated $1.5 million since 1986 and $250,000 more projected over the next six years.

The center's supporters say it epitomizes the best of the planned community because riding lessons, horse shows and boarding stables are benefits that help distinguish Columbia. But the history of the center suggests another story.

Years of poor management, rubber-stamp decision-making by the Columbia Council and a philosophy that condones losing money raise questions about how Columbia governs itself and spends its budget of nearly $50 million a year, an investigation by The Sun has found.

The person most responsible for keeping the center alive was Padraic M. Kennedy, the longtime unofficial "mayor" of Columbia until his retirement last year. As president of the Columbia Association (commonly referred to as CA), he made key decisions about the center at the same time he had a strong personal interest in its fate.

Kennedy rode and boarded horses at the center, located on Gorman Road, and, until recently, kept a show horse in the stable. His children took riding lessons and competed in horse shows. And the businesses of his son and daughter-in-law put on the center's top-rated shows until last month.

None of that influenced his judgment, Kennedy said in a written response to The Sun's inquiries. He said the center "fit right in with the kind of recreation services CA was set up to offer."

"I was an advocate for all of [the association's programs] because I firmly believe they are programs that enrich the very fabric of Columbia and make living and working here such a special joy," he said.

While Kennedy, current Columbia officials and center users defend the need for the facility, its record since opening under association management in 1974 raises serious questions about the benefits Columbians receive:

Community officials assert the center is a place where residents who don't own horses can take lessons. Yet only about 600 of Columbia's 87,000 residents -- less than 1 percent -- use the center each year, and of those just 112 take lessons.

Nearly 60 percent of those who use the center aren't from Columbia. Because the center loses money -- a projected $94,000 this year -- Columbia homeowners must make up the difference. (The center charges residents an average of $24 for a riding lesson and $435 for monthly board; nonresidents pay $29 and $465, respectively.)

In a recent survey rating Columbia facilities and services in order of funding priority, residents ranked the center last.

If the Horse Center were to close, there are more than a dozen private horse facilities in Howard, Baltimore and Montgomery counties where Columbians could go, including the Patapsco Horse Center in nearby Catonsville, which Howard Recreation and Parks officials selected to run its summer riding program this year.

Goal is to break even

Despite these issues, Columbia officials are preparing to pour more money into the center. Hoping to increase use by residents and have the center break even, the Columbia Council embraced a 10-year plan last spring that calls for $885,000 in capital improvements and projects an increase in annual operating expenses from the current $682,000 to more than $1 million.

The goal is to break even in fiscal year 2006 -- after ringing up another $250,000 in losses, according to official estimates.

"If you don't put money into something at all, you can't expect it to succeed at all," M. J. Miller, a Columbia resident and Horse Center patron, told the council during testimony on behalf of the facility in April.

The plan was prepared over a matter of weeks and recalls earlier promises of fiscal reform.

In 1980 budget documents, Columbia officials predicted the center would become one of the "most profitable businesses" run by the Columbia Association, which acts as a sort of government in the unincorporated city, assessing property owners annual taxes and funding a range of services and facilities.

Association staff devised the new 10-year plan.

"I was glad to see [association officials] were thinking more creatively," said Jean S. Friedberg Jr., a council member. "But if you're going to do it in the totally correct way, you might need to do market studies and go out and study a successful horse center somewhere else. You put more into it."

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