Kentucky Horse Park hopes new plan brings financial success

lblackford@herald-leader.comJuly 21, 2012 

Saturday morning at the Kentucky Horse Park, some 260 riders galloped and jumped in the Adequan FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships, while long lines formed again at Breyerfest, a celebration of model horses.

Next weekend, the state-supported park will host two more weeks of huge hunter-jumper shows, followed by the Pony Finals, which brings thousands of riders, ponies, parents and grooms to Lexington.

As a competitive venue, the Kentucky Horse Park has it all — except a way to break even financially.

Despite the 2010 World Equestrian Games, which brought $85 million in construction projects to the park, officials had to ask the General Assembly for an extra $3.5 million to balance the budget for the 2012 fiscal year.

Legislators were less than pleased and asked for a business plan that showed a road to self-sufficiency. The new plan, adopted by the Horse Park board in June, shows a short-term goal to examine such areas as fee increases and food services. Self-sufficiency by 2020 will require three major components:

■ $6.8 million in state funding to expand the campground with 100 new campsites, two new bathhouses, and a new store.

■ A privately developed hotel, which officials say could bring in up to $1.5 million a year. Plans for such a hotel started in 2006, but the state cancelled it in 2008 because of complications with funding.

■ $1.2 million to $1.3 million yearly from the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government because of the economic benefit the park brings to Lexington and Central Kentucky from spending on hotels, restaurants and other amenities that boost tax revenues.

"If it is mandated for the Kentucky Horse Park to carry out its mission without financial support from the General Fund, then the Park must find ways to participate in the prosperity it creates for others," the report said.

Horse Park Executive Director John Nicholson said Saturday that he hopes the plan will start a conversation between civic leaders and the public.

"At this stage, the plan is a real discussion on the value of the Kentucky Horse Park to the region and to this industry, and how it can continue to make the tremendous contribution it is making to our economy," he said.

Fewer visitors, higher costs

The current financial problems started in 2008, when high gas prices and the economic meltdown meant that fewer people visited the park and fewer competitors took part in events. Overall, revenues fell by almost $150,000 between 2008 and 2009. A $47,625 deficit rolled over to 2010, when admissions and revenues rose slightly. But for the latter part of 2009 and the first part of 2010, $85 million in state-funded construction hampered events at both the new indoor arena and the upgraded outdoor stadium.

Later in 2010, before and during the Games, the park was closed to many regular visitors, campers and events. The number of equine events fell from 70 in 2009 to 57 in 2010. At the same time, utility costs nearly doubled. Eleven full-time jobs have been cut since 2007.

"The good news is we are having a banner year and our cash position has improved even since the adoption of the business plan," Nicholson said Saturday. "But even with that news, we will continue to examine every possible new source of revenue."

For example, 87 events are scheduled for this year. The lineup includes the Alltech National Horse Show, the Kentucky Spring Horse Shows, and the Young Rider Championships.

Nicholson said new events in 2011 added $44 million to the local economy and generated $4.2 million in state taxes. In 2010, the total economic impact of Horse Park activities was $179 million, plus $17.1 million in state taxes, he said.

State officials and the FEI, the international equine governing body, have estimated that the Games meant between $200 million and $400 million in economic impact for the state, even though the Games themselves ended up in a deficit and brought little cash to the park.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray's office was non-committal when asked about the proposal.

"We know it's important to make quality of life investments, even in tight financial times," spokeswoman Susan Straub said. "There are always competing demands for these dollars. The city's job is to consider the needs, better understand funding options and then make the best use of public dollars by focusing on community priorities."

Lexington's coffers are strapped, and all of the city's 6 percent hotel tax goes to the Lexington Convention and Visitor's Bureau and the Lexington Convention Center.

It's also not clear how the General Assembly would react to a $6.8 million capital project request. The fact that the Horse Park escaped an 8 percent cut required of most state agencies this year under Gov. Steve Beshear's budget was widely seen as protection by Beshear and First Lady Jane Beshear, a supporter and former board member of the Horse Park Foundation.

In some ways, the Horse Park exists in a bubble of top-level competition and tourism — a popular place for riders, spectators and vendors where economic concerns seem remote.

Claudia Billups, 17, traveled from Oxford, Miss., for the Younger Rider Championships.

"I like the way it's set up. It's a beautiful place to be," Billups said. She and her family stay in their camper at the Horse Park but make frequent trips to Jalapeno's, her favorite local restaurant.

Vendors Kathleen Palladino and Carol King have spent so much time at the Horse Park, they're both moving to Lexington.

"There is an excellent clientele here. It's a marriage made in heaven," Palladino said inside the tent of her women's clothing store, Frou Frou. "Here there's a horse show every weekend, so you get an excellent draw and I don't have to travel."

King sells clothing and equipment by the British firm Barbour.

"The shopping at the horse shows is really phenomenal," she said. "You can't shop anywhere with this kind of quality."

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359 Twitter: @lbblackford

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