Rough ride in Columbia

Howard County: Columbia Council needs to tighten rein on money-losing horse center.

September 27, 1999

WITH LOSSES of $1.5 million since 1986 -- more than $350,000 in the last three budget years alone -- the Columbia Horse Center hangs on by threads of tradition and remarkable concern for a tiny sliver of Columbia residents.

No business could tolerate these losses. Of course, the horse center, supported by Columbia property assessments, isn't really a business. Some slack is afforded, and should be, to facilities and programs that serve the community. The problem here is that the community as a whole shows little interest in horses.

No one is insisting on a profit -- and some subsidies are appropriate within reason. Many other Columbia programs and facilities also get subsidies.

The riding center, though, flirts with the outer reaches of these considerations. Despite its shortcomings, it has been given 10 years to get itself on a solid financial footing.

The terms seem generous indeed: Six years are granted to reach a break-even point via marketing, membership drives and the like.

Meanwhile, the center managers are contemplating capital expenditures of $885,000 over the next decade -- $100,000 soon to provide a tractor, new fencing, new paddocks and new jumps, among other things. New roofs could cost another $40,000. Those might all be reasonable and necessary expenditures -- if the center is expected to be able to reach its goals.

The facility's users and backers have given themselves quite a challenge: proving that an under-used luxury can broaden appeal and justify itself in the real world.

Meanwhile, members of the Columbia Council must monitor the center's bottom line. They need to make sure everyone knows exactly how spending priorities are set -- or citizens will lose confidence in the association's determination to provide equitably for everyone's well-being.

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