When Columbia Association Vice President Rob Goldman asked for $145,000 this year for improvements to the financially beleaguered equestrian center, Columbia Council members all but issued an ultimatum: Improve the facility's bottom line or face the possibility of closing it.
It was a line the council, the governing body of the association, hadn't drawn before -- despite long-standing questions about Horse Center management, the estimated $1.5 million in losses it has rung up since 1986 and the fact that well under half its users are residents of Columbia.
Goldman devised a plan showing the facility breaking even -- for the first time -- after six years.
But it's unclear whether CA's latest attempt to improve the center's performance will work.
The association has vowed before to turn the facility around, and the new 10-year plan was devised in haste, apparently with little attention to the center's niche in what has become a competitive market.
Over a period of six weeks in March and April, Goldman gave council members three sets of financial projections, ranging from a $1.7 million loss over the next 10 years to a break-even scenario after six.
The plan is the latest chapter in the long and sometimes contentious history of the Horse Center, which exemplifies how CA's underlying philosophy -- to operate as a service organization, not a business -- condones losing money.
Now the stakes are perhaps higher than they've ever been: To save the center, CA is going to pump substantially more money into it.
Over the next decade, operating expenditures will increase from $682,000 to more than $1 million, and CA will make an estimated $885,000 in capital expenditures. That's in addition to the $250,000 the center is expected to lose before breaking even in fiscal year 2006.
"There's always a risk in doing that," said CA President Deborah O. McCarty, referring to the projected expenditures. "But that's sort of the risk that is Columbia."
The plan, which Goldman calls "optimistic, but obtainable," calls for an increase in nonresident rates; expansion of lessons; the addition of nonriding clinics; a stepped-up marketing plan; and $10,000 in planning funds to determine the feasibility of adding, among other things, dog shows, flea markets and a petting zoo.
Nonresident rates will increase so much that CA expects to lose some of their business -- business they hope will be picked up by residents. Resident rates will increase only slightly -- even though that's one reason, Goldman said, the center hasn't made more money.
Only about 600 Columbia residents use the Horse Center each year, CA officials say, and of that number only 112 take riding lessons -- one of the facility's primary offerings. The center has lost more than $350,000 during the last three fiscal years and is expected to lose another $94,000 this year.
Residents ranked it last in a 1998 survey of CA facilities they want funded.
CA bills the Horse Center as the "premier" equestrian facility in and around Howard County, one of the few places where those who don't own a horse can take lessons. CA doesn't view the center as having direct competition, except for horse shows, and only then from a single Montgomery County facility.
But several other nearby facilities offer public lessons, board, horse shows, camps and therapeutic riding for the disabled, including the Sundance Equestrian Center, which is on a 120-acre farm in Woodbine; the Patapsco Horse Center in Catonsville, which has an extensive trail system backing up to Patapsco Valley State Park; and Maple Spring Farm near Glenelg, which for years ran Howard County's summer riding program.
Therapeutic riding is also available at several area locations.
"I guess the question is, [the Horse Center] might not be the best fit in the Columbia Association scheme of things, but what do you do with it?" said Joan C. Lancos, a former Columbia Council member who serves on Howard's Recreation and Parks board. "There is a need for that type of facility in the county. The right answer might be, the county might take it over."
There are no such plans in the works; in fact, the county has affiliated itself with other facilities. Recreation and Parks officials chose the Patapsco Horse Center to run its summer riding program this year. Last year, Sundance ran the program, and for years before that, it was operated by Maple Spring.
Those familiar with the Horse Center, which CA has operated since 1974, have identified several problems with its operations in recent years. During the period CA leased the facility to independent managers, from 1987 to 1996, maintenance was not a high priority.
"Over that 10 years, we were reinvesting significant amounts in every other facility, but only the bare minimum in the Horse Center," said Goldman. "We never did the kind of extra things we did at any other facility to make them really shine."
Some riders preferred the horse care provided before the association reassumed management. The previous managers "were horse people, they knew what horses needed, what riders needed, they knew the industry," said Pam Koerner, a former riding student, boarder and employee at the Horse Center, who has since moved her horse to another stable.
Koerner said the horses weren't "turned out" -- or exercised -- frequently enough, and that the paddocks were cramped and had little grass.
Shortly after CA took over, longtime horse owner Nancy King took back four horses she had donated to the Maryland Therapeutic Horsemanship Association, based at the center, because she was concerned about the quality of their care. King said two other horses had recently broken their legs in the same field within a short period of time and had to be euthanized.
"The first time, you consider an accident," she said. "The second time, something's wrong."
CA insists -- and users confirm -- that improvements at the facility are under way. Kaye McCally, the center's general manager, said in written remarks to The Sun that horse care has "improved dramatically" since CA took over.
The number of boarders has increased from 20 to about 50, she said, and 12 "schooling shows" have been added to the program. Lesson participation has more than doubled.
CA has also begun upgrading the physical plant.
"The Horse Center has turned around tremendously as far as the upkeep of the facility itself," said Joan Athan, president and founder of Maryland Therapeutic.
In another effort to improve operations there, the Columbia Council recently adopted a charter for a Horse Center advisory committee to serve as a liaison between center users, the council and CA staff.
"The point has been made," said Joseph Merke of Town Center, the council chairman, "that we have to look at these [facilities] and come up with good business plans and not just assume that because it was here last year it will be here next year. We don't have to accept things because that's the way they were."
For now, though, council members say they are willing to give the Horse Center another chance.
"Many of us were satisfied that at least we had a plan that would minimize the subsidy paid by the Columbia Association but at the same time continue the investment," said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, the Long Reach council representative, "because we can't expect to even stay where it is [financially] if we don't replace the horses."
Pub Date: 9/20/99