Panel backs horse center


The head of an independent team that evaluated the operation of the Columbia Horse Center recommended keeping the facility open last night. At the same time, members of the Columbia Council asked for new financial projections about its potential for profit.

Malcolm Commer Jr., an equine and livestock economist for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service who headed the study, told the council that the facility could make money if it were better managed. It has lost $623,000 in the past five years and is used by less than 1 percent of Columbia residents.

"We are comfortable that it could be a significantly profitable operation," Commer told the 10-member board at a meeting at CA headquarters.

He said the horse center, on 88 acres off Gorman Road, should easily be able to show at least a $100,000 net profit in a year's time.

The center is expected this fiscal year to have a $46,000 net from operations, but, overall will lose nearly $200,000 when fixed costs are factored in.

The horse center has come under scrutiny by the council in the last few years because of its financial losses and lack of use.

Nearly all of CA's facilities are subsidized, but most have a higher usage level, particularly by Columbia residents.

"This [report] looks good, it sounds good, but we need some numbers," said Miles Coffman, the council representative from Hickory Ridge.

Rob Goldman, CA's vice president for the sport and fitness division, said he would compile a revised set of projections for the council which take into consideration some of the panel's recommendations.

The study, conducted by an eight-member team of equestrian experts, considered three options for the horse center: closing or selling it, leasing it, or continuing to operate it as a CA facility.

Commer said the panel did not recommend the first option, because it did not make financial sense, given the zoning restrictions on the uses of the property, which would limit its value.

Leasing the center , he said, would allow CA to continue providing an important service, while minimizing the risk of financial loss. Continuing to operate it as a CA facility would provide the best opportunity for profit, he said, but also the biggest risk of losing money.

"This is probably the highest exposure for financial risk," Commer said.

The two-part study, which will include an appraisal of the property's fair market value, was commissioned by the previous Columbia Council as a sort of compromise to closing the facility. The council approved spending up to $25,000 on the study.

Goldman said last night he wants to continue providing equestrian services for residents of Columbia who don't own horses.

He had previously recommended against leasing the facility, which had been tried once before and was unsuccessful, but told the council that it might now be a viable option. He was directed by the council to investigate of interest among outside groups to possibly taking over the center.

Also last night, Wilde Lake council representative Vince Marando proposed that the council form a 15-member committee to study the structure and governance of Columbia and offer recommendations to the council for reform.

The Columbia Governance Study Committee would be made up of two council members, two village officials and 11 community residents, and would present a report to the council in about a year.

"The community has changed very, very much since its inception in 1967," said Marando, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park. "The plans may or may not be suitable for today."

Two council members, Coffman and council Vice Chairwoman Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, suggested that 15 members weren't enough. Coffman said he supported launching such a committee, but wanted to get a broader cross-section of support.

Cecilia Januszkiewicz, who represents Long Reach and has been an advocate for reform, said any group much larger would be unmanageable.

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