A Columbia Association officer said last night that CA needs to get out of the horse business.
Rob Goldman, the association's vice president for the sport and fitness division, recommended that the Columbia Council sell or lease the Columbia Horse Center.
"We have come to the conclusion that running a facility where we have to work with customers and live animals is beyond our expertise," Goldman said.
On 88 acres off Gorman Road, the horse center is by far the most controversial of Columbia's many recreational facilities. It has lost money for years - nearly $300,000 in the fiscal year that ended April 30 - and is used by less than 1 percent of Columbia residents.
Nearly all of the association's facilities are subsidized, but most have a higher usage level, particularly by Columbia residents.
The horse center has come under scrutiny by the council over the years because of its financial losses and lack of use. Though it has been leased in the past, the facility has always managed to attract enough support among the council and Columbia Association staff to fend off a sale.
But at last night's meeting, the council was in favor of at least looking into selling or leasing the center.
Members stressed that any sale or lease agreement would take months to finalize, so there would be no immediate change for users.
Council members also expressed hope that, even in the event of a sale, the facility would continue to be used as a horse center.
Horse center enthusiasts who attended the meeting said they appreciated the council's intention not to suddenly cast them out.
Council members recently received a financial appraisal of the center. They have declined to disclose the figure, saying that could hurt them in negotiations with potential buyers.
"It's obvious - and I come from a rural background - we cannot run the horse center and run it well," said Councilman Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge.
Goldman had expressed support in the past for having the association run the horse center, and his comments to the contrary surprised at least one council member.
"I'm just perplexed," said Councilman Adam Rich of River Hill. "I did not know that was staff's position."
Goldman said that he has learned that a lease deal could be structured more favorably than those of the past.
The tenant could be required to make substantial capital improvements to the facility, he said.
Goldman also said that association might want to make some improvements to the facility now to ensure that it is kept in safe condition, a point with which several council members agreed.
Councilwoman Cecilia Januszkiewicz of Long Reach said she was concerned about entering into a lease agreement because future problems will wind up in the council's lap.She also expressed some concern about selling a large piece of open space.
"It is a very substantial piece of open space, and I'd be reluctant to part with it on a permanent basis," she said.
Council Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice agreed that selling and leasing both presented potential problems. But he directed staff to look into the options and asked them to make recommendations at the next meeting for spending needed to improve safety at the facility.
"The time has come to answer the question of what to do with the horse center," Morrison said.