The Columbia Association has agreed to lease its troubled horse center to an experienced horseman who hopes to turn the old mare into a thoroughbred.
Mike Smith, who has operated Woodland Horse Center in Silver Spring for 27 years, said yesterday that he will assume control of the Columbia facility Jan. 1.
But he's not waiting until then to literally dig into the messy work of turning around the horse center.
"He's been out there mucking the stalls himself," said Bob Bellamy, the association's director of operations for sport and fitness. "Christmas Eve, Christmas Day - he was out there mucking the stalls. He's jumped in there with two feet and hopefully hasn't landed in too much manure."
Smith and the association agreed last week to a five-year lease, with options for two additional five-year terms.
He and Columbia Association officials declined to disclose terms of the lease, which were revealed to Columbia Council members in an executive session last week after some complained about being kept in the dark about the matter. A source close to the deal said Smith will pay Columbia Association base rent plus a percentage of income from boarding and riding fees.
That overall figure is "in the ballpark" of $34,000 a year, the amount listed as horse center income in the association's proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins May 1, the source said. Smith also will be required to spend an undisclosed sum each year on physical improvements to the facility.
One of the first improvements Smith plans to make is installing an automatic watering system for the horses, Bellamy said.
"I think it's going to be a really good thing for the Columbia Horse Center and for Columbia," Bellamy said. "We just don't have the expertise there, and we're happy not to be doing it and he's happy to be doing it."
The Columbia Association has struggled for years with the horse center, which has been troubled by financial losses.
The center is expected to lose $353,000 in the fiscal year that ends April 30, according to projections released last week as part of the association's second-quarter report. The center lost $290,000 last fiscal year.
Nearly all of the association's facilities are subsidized, but most have higher usage. The facility, which opened under Columbia Association management in 1974, is used by less than 1 percent of Columbia's 87,000 residents.
Despite the financial losses and low usage, Columbia officials have been reluctant in recent years to lease or sell the facility, on 88 acres off Gorman Road. An organized group of horse enthusiasts argued that Columbia needs to maintain its commitment to a wide range of recreational offerings.
But the Columbia Council decided last fall to look for someone to lease the facility, after Columbia Association staff acknowledged that they did not have the expertise to run it.
By then, even enthusiasts were saying that the center's uncertain fate was threatening the health of the horses and causing many boarders to remove their animals. The number of horses boarded at the barn has fallen sharply, from about 49 in January to about a dozen today, barn staff said.
The barn is home to about 24 other horses, some of them owned by the Columbia Association, others kept there at no charge in exchange for their use in lessons. About 300 lessons are given at the center each week.
Smith, a resident of Burtonsville, said he is a partner in several Maryland equestrian facilities in addition to Woodland, though he would not identify them. He said more than 60 horses are boarded at the Silver Spring facility. He declined to say how many lessons are given there.
Smith said he is optimistic that he can turn around the Columbia center, making it a quality boarding facility and a place where first-time riders and serious equestrians can find what they need.
"I do not think it's as bad as everybody says," Smith said.
He plans to add two "farm workers" immediately but declined to discuss other staff changes. He praised the people who have kept the facility running despite the uncertainty.
"They've been through a hell of a mess here, not knowing," he said. "I think they need their kudos. It's hard to work on a farm and not know who's going to be the next boss and what Columbia's going to do with them. The fact that they're still there [shows] their dedication."