For the past seven years, Sandy Cantrall has boarded her horse Jeremy at Columbia Horse Center. And she says there were some days, years ago, when she didn't know what to expect when she went to visit.
Sometimes the stalls were not properly cleaned or the horses were not appropriately attended to, she said.
But since the Columbia Association leased the facility to a private contractor, Cantrall has become enthusiastic about the center.
"I am so happy here," Cantrall said while atop her chestnut horse in one of the center's indoor rings.
Cantrall's attitude is reflected broadly among users of the horse center, where, until recently, complaints were endemic and annual operating losses totaled in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The change began two years ago when the association leased the center to Burtonsville horseman Mike Smith. Since then, financial losses have been significantly reduced, and the center is earning a positive net income from operations.
"He seems to be taking great care of the property," said Keisha Reynolds, the association's manager of community relations and communications.
The successful privatization of the horse center has drawn attention from critics of the association's management of the troubled Hobbit's Glen Golf Club, which is scheduled to be closed this year for a $679,000 reconstruction of most of its greens.
The critics would like to see management of the golf course contracted out. But that idea has not been supported by the majority of the association's board of directors or its budget advisory committee.
The budget committee recently recommended looking for alternative management if the course's financial status does not improve within a few years after the greens are rebuilt. The association staff argues that contracting out the golf course does not appear to be a financially viable option.
Unlike the horse center in its troubled days, Hobbit's Glen has a positive net income from operations, they note. And they say an outside contractor would have to pay the association at least $750,000 to cover the money the association would lose from Hobbit's Glen and the association's other course, Fairway Hills Golf Club, which have the same management.
The success of the 88-acre horse facility off Gorman Road is attributed by Smith to his staff members, whom he described as "professional, and they know what they're doing." He said they strove to improve morale at the center as soon as they took it over - he wanted customers to have more fun.
"Our whole shtick is, basically, riding should be fun," Smith said. "We teach with a sense of humor and try to get the whole family involved and not make it so exclusive."
Smith also started programs at the center, including a lease program, where riders can rent horses for a monthly fee. The center also expanded its lesson program by offering free introductory lessons each Saturday.
Cantrall, of Ellicott City, cannot give enough praise to Smith and his staff - they are organized, consistent and take "fabulous care" of the animals, she said.
"It's been so different," Cantrall said. "I go out there now, and they actually treat you like a valued customer. They're consistently pleasant."
Smith started running the center - which includes 40 acres of pasture, two indoor rings and two outdoor rings - in January 2001. The Columbia Association had managed it since 1996. The center previously was leased from 1984 to 1996, but Reynolds said that personnel issues toward the end of that period prompted the association to resume management of the facility.
But the horse center continued to experience troubles under association management. Staff members without an equine management background ran the center, and some workers left and were not replaced.
In September 2000 - when the number of horses boarded at the barn had decreased by more than half since the beginning of that year - Rob Goldman, the association's vice president for sport and fitness, recommended to the Columbia Council that the association sell or lease the facility.
He told the council that the staff has "come to the conclusion that running a facility where we have to work with customers and live animals is beyond our expertise."
Smith is managing the center under a five-year lease, paying the association $12,000 annually. The lease also includes the option to have the contract extended twice by five years. Smith also is required to make $50,000 in capital improvements annually to the center. Some of the recent capital improvements include ring lights, a new office, gravel roadways, a security system and gazebos.
When the association took over the center, Reynolds said, "We found that the property wasn't as well maintained as CA's other facilities, so [the required capital projects] were a way to ensure that this facility lives up to the high CA standards we have for all of our facilities."
The center closed the 2002 fiscal year with $120,000 in losses, which is significantly better than its $416,000 deficit in 2001. The center also made $10,000 in net profits from operations last year, compared with a loss of $238,000 the year before.
The 80 stalls in the barns are now full, and Nanci Steveson, the center's general manager, estimates that Columbia residents make up about half of the center's clientele.
Columbia residents pay $430 a month to board their horses, with the center staff feeding the animals twice a day and cleaning their stalls. Nonresidents pay $475 monthly.
Group riding lessons cost $370 for 13 weeks for residents and $389 for nonresidents.
The association staff meets with Smith regularly about the center and also inspects the property quarterly. Reynolds said that association staff members are pleased with Smith's management and that Smith installed outdoor ring lighting at his expense.
"We think that he is doing a great job," Reynolds said. "We're measuring that on how happy our customers are."