The Kentucky Horse Park is “making good progress,” state Tourism, Arts and Heritage Secretary Don Parkinson said after hearing Wednesday that the park is on track to meet budget projections for the year.
Executive director Jamie Link told the Kentucky Horse Park Commission the park has more than $538,000 in hand after the lean winter season.
“We’re right where we planned to be with the season kicking off,” Link said. The park is officially open for the season as of Wednesday, he said, with one of the biggest events of the year, the sold-out Road to the Horse, beginning Thursday.
It was “unfortunate” there had been so many “distractions” recently, Parkinson said, which had the potential to set the park back as the busy spring season gets underway.
In the past month state Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer has criticized Link, accusing him of “mismanagement” of the park.
Thayer pointed to a letter in February from Finance Secretary William M. Landrum reducing the park’s small-purchase authority from $20,000 to $1,000 after discovering $500,000 in purchases over 11 months from food vendor Sysco without a state contract.
Parkinson said Wednesday that the problem appeared to be not one of misconduct but of miscoding. “I don’t know what the details are, but it sounds more like the latter than the former,” he said.
“We’ve got a lot of good people doing a lot of good work around here. Last Thursday some of us came over to talk with Jamie and the management team, to talk about everything going on. And we encouraged everyone to stay focused on the task at hand. We do have this Rolex coming up ... and it’s a lot of work to get done, and distractions really, really could be very costly for everyone.”
Parkinson said Gov. Matt Bevin has big ideas about the park and sees a lot of opportunity for more events and investment.
“I’m going to let the governor explain his ideas in the coming months,” Parkinson said, “but we think it could be much bigger, we think it could have more features here, we think we could attract people from around the world to come and stay here. If we change the tax code, we think we could have people come here as a safe haven for their investments. So there are some real huge opportunities, some big ideas ... we have not scratched the surface yet on the potential this place has.”
One opportunity they hope to revisit: a hotel.
“We want to investigate that again ... see if we can make that work,” he said. “We’re very enthusiastic about looking at it and we’re going to once again take a look at outside investors to look at a hotel out here. Don’t know if it will happen or not, but it’s something on the table, as it has been for the last eight years.”
No other major construction is contemplated for the next two or three years, he said.
Parkinson told the board that in late May or June he plans to bring together a “visioning” group for a day of discussion about the Horse Park.
The administration has no plans to privatize the park, but there is potential for increased revenue, he said.
Park revenue for fiscal year 2015 was $12.3 million, Link said, up 15 percent from the year before. The park is moving toward financial independence from the state General Fund, but last year the park still was $1.85 million short of that goal. But Link pointed out the deficit was 40 percent smaller than the year before.
He outlined improvements in the gift shop, which has been turned over to a private contractor to run for the past two years. Since then , he said, the gift shop has been profitable. In fiscal 2015, the gift shop had gross sales of more than $1.3 million, up 42 percent; net profits of $533,076, up 227 percent; and a profit margin of 49 percent, up 8 percentage points.
Year-to-date, the metrics are tracking even better, he said.
Horse Park commission member Jeff Fisk praised the gift shop’s turnaround.
“Jamie, it is amazing what’s been done here,” Fisk said.
Everything from the campgrounds to parking lots to the park’s theater and even the lake have seen upgrades, with an eye toward generating revenue. The lake, for instance, has been stocked with fish, which are free, he said, but parking costs $5.
During an interview after the report, Parkinson praised the park’s team.
“Everyone’s working hard,” he said. “I’m optimistic about it.”
Newly appointed chair Tandy Patrick said she and Parkinson were “still getting our arms around the facts here, to be able to drill down, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction, and Jamie’s initiated lots of good things.”
Asked if he planned to make changes to the park team, Parkinson would say only, “We don’t talk about personnel decisions. Nothing’s been decided about anything.”
Thayer said in an email that he was “very pleased with the new leadership on the Horse Park Commission, and I know that the issues that have been brought to light recently will be addressed in a systematic manner.”
The Tourism Cabinet has no plans to launch an investigation into the recent purchasing problem, Parkinson said.
“We’ll just wait on the audit, which is normal with a change of administration,” Parkinson said.
Edwin King, Landrum’s chief of staff, said in an interview last week that the purchases were for food used for park catering and that the cabinet was working with the park to establish a product list and procedures to purchase these types of items for upcoming events.
The purchase restriction has not been lifted, but Parkinson said the issue would be resolved before the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in late April.
“Rolex is critical to us. We’ll do whatever it takes. We have to make this a success,” Parkinson said.