Panel sees a future for horse center

Better management could turn a profit, study concludes

`Unanimous' report

Struggling facility called underused, lost $1.5 million since '86

April 26, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

A team of equestrian experts conducting an independent study of Columbia Horse Center believes that the beleaguered facility could be profitable if better managed and is expected to recommend that it remain open.

Malcolm Commer Jr., an equine and livestock economist for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, said the eight-member panel will recommend that the facility -- which has lost about $1.5 million since 1986 -- continue operating under the management of the Columbia Association or a private lessee.

"The group that we put together, it was unanimous that if it was managed correctly in private hands that it would be a moneymaking operation," he said.

Commer, who will compile a report of the panel's findings for the Columbia Council, said the Columbia Association could operate the facility at a profit as well.

"We do think that there are some options that will enhance the degree of use of the facility and certainly decrease the amount of money that is being put into it," he said.

A prior lease arrangement was not successful, and the Columbia Association has seemed hesitant to enter into another one.

The horse center, which is used by fewer than 1 percent of Columbia's 87,000 residents, has come under scrutiny during the past year because of financial losses and limited use.

Columbia Association officials devised a long-range plan last year under which the facility was to break even in fiscal 2006, but the center fell well behind those projections months after they were made.

The operational review is one element of a two-part study the council commissioned in February after a staff shake-up and debate over whether to keep the facility open.

The study, which could cost up to $25,000, will include a determination of the facility's selling price and whether selling it is feasible. More than $100,000 in capital funds for the fiscal year that begins Monday have been frozen pending the outcome.

Commer said the most profitable option likely would be to close the center, raze the buildings and sell the 88-acre property. But he cautioned:

"That's not necessarily the best thing to do. Being an economist I try to look at all the options, and that is one of them. I will say, it's not the one I'm going to recommend."

Among the panel's suggestions, he said, will be to increase involvement of youth and groups for the elderly, and offer off-site trail rides and other activities for advanced riders.

"I don't think there were any glaring problems" operationally, Commer said. "It was a lot of little things -- attention to details -- and quite a bit of it was in the marketing or the presentation of the entertainment and activity itself.

"In other words, if it was being promoted, it was being promoted to a very limited clientele group."

Commer said the facility's general manager, a position being filled temporarily by Bob Bellamy, director of operations for Columbia Association's sport and fitness division, doesn't need to have an equestrian background.

"I'm not convinced -- and nor was the committee -- that the main general manager needs to be a `horse person' per se," he said. "All you've got to do is have a people person who can communicate both with the horse people and the general public."

The panel, which includes equestrian center operators and horse trainers from neighboring jurisdictions, spent a day at the Columbia facility last month reviewing everything from manure disposal to marketing methods.

"It's been very helpful," said Rob Goldman, CA's vice president for sport and fitness. "It's probably long overdue."

In addition to Commer, the panel includes Crystal Brumme, publisher of the Equiery and secretary of the Maryland Horse Council; Paul Novograd, owner of Potomac Horse Center in Gaithersburg; Jane Seigler, owner of Reddemeade Stables in Silver Spring; Chrissy Keys Cockburn, owner of Oatland Stables in Olney.

Also, Ed Lane, a horse trainer who owns Tartan Farms in Poolesville; Streett Moore, an instructor and trainer at McDonogh School in Owings Mills; and John Dascanio, a University of Maryland-Virginia Regional School of Veterinary Medicine professor.

Some of the consultants donated their time; others were paid one-day stipends. Bellamy said the total cost was about $4,200.

Commer said he expects the report to be presented to the council in June.

A legal opinion from CA's outside counsel on the details of selling the horse center is expected in the next several weeks, Goldman said.

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