Horse center advisory panel opens review; Better marketing seen by some as key to saving troubled Columbia facility


A new committee created by the Columbia Council will begin tonight to discuss ways to improve operations and management at the financially beleaguered Columbia Horse Center.

The 10-member Columbia Association Horse Center Advisory Committee is holding its first meeting to review policies, programs and expenditures at the association-run facility, which came under increased scrutiny by the Columbia Council during budget debate this year.

"I'm envisioning that we can create a vision for it and help improve the marketing of it," said Joan Athen, a committee member and founder and president of the Maryland Therapeutic Horsemanship Association, which is based at the horse center. "It really needs to be marketed."

The Sun reported in a series this week that the horse center, which opened under association management in 1974, has been troubled by years of poor management and financial losses.

Each year, only about 600 of Columbia's residents -- less than 1 percent -- use the facility, which was ranked last in order of funding priority in a 1998 association survey. The majority of the center's users don't live in Columbia.

Bob Aiken, a committee volunteer who has boarded a horse at the center for about two years, said the Gorman Road facility, which has lost an estimated $1.5 million since 1986 and is projected to lose another $94,000 this fiscal year, should aim to break even.

"I feel that there's no reason why my addiction to horses should be subsidized by anybody," said Aiken, whose daughter takes riding lessons at the center. "I either can afford it or I can't afford it. Nobody should have to pay for what I like to do."

Aiken, of Kings Contrivance, said he was unaware that the facility was losing so much money and was being used by so few residents until Columbia Council debate over the center's fate in the spring.

"All of the information that was available was news to us," Aiken said. "I don't think any of the people who were there [in support of the horse center] were aware of that."

CA, which subsidizes all but five of its dozens of programs and facilities, is poised to pump more money than ever into the center over the next 10 years, including $885,000 in capital expenditures.

According to a plan devised by Columbia Association Vice President Rob Goldman, the center will break even, for the first time, in six years -- after losing another $250,000.

The improvement in the facility's bottom line is based on a combination of rate increases, expansion of the lesson and horse show programs, the addition of nonriding clinics and stepped-up marketing.

Advisory committee member Jim Shields of Hickory Ridge said that Columbia, with nearly 90,000 residents, is a community of diverse interests and that the range of facilities the association offers "enhances the appeal of living in Columbia."

"I think you probably need a lot of facilities -- different kinds of facilities -- to meet those interests," he said.

The committee, which is made up of 10 Columbia Council appointees, will meet at 7: 30 p.m. at association headquarters. Goldman, head of the association's sport and fitness division, and Kaye McCally, the horse center's general manager, will serve as nonvoting members of the panel, which will meet quarterly.

Athen, of Maryland Therapeutic, said improvements at the facility -- particularly in the infrastructure -- have begun.

"A lot of money is put into all the other [Columbia Association] facilities," she said. "No one's ever paid attention to the Columbia Horse Center, and it's a CA facility. It was embarrassing to have people there and think of it as CA. It's just been a stepchild and I think now that CA says, 'We've got potential here,' they're starting to put money into it."

Pub Date: 9/21/99

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