The news earlier this week about Sen. Damon Thayer’s failed attempt to get a job at the Kentucky Horse Park reinforces the need to put all his proposed “reforms” at the park on hold.
Thayer has been throwing around accusations against the current management to promote his bill to dissolve the 17-member commission that oversees the park and replace it with a smaller body that would be appointed exclusively by his fellow Republican, newly elected Gov. Matt Bevin.
Since the commission hires the executive director, that could open the door to replacing Jamie Link, a former staffer of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, as well as former Horse Park deputy executive director and CEO of the 2010 World Equestrian Games, who took over in Nov. 2014.
This week’s special election increased the Democratic majority in the House, so Thayer’s bill, which passed the Republican-controlled Senate, is probably dead this session.
That offers time for the management audit Thayer wants — and Link welcomes — and an informed study of this important public asset before any changes are legislated.
And it is important: The 1,224-acre park is the only U.S. location to host the World Equestrian Games and has long been home to the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event — Thayer applied unsuccessfully in 2010 for the $50,000-a-year post as its executive director — which annually draws competitors and spectators from around the world.
It also hosts dozens of other equine and non-equine events annually. The Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet estimated the Horse Park’s economic impact at $180 million, including $18 million in tax revenue. That same 2012 report set a goal of the park becoming self-sustaining. Under Link it has made progress, paring a 2014 $3.1 million deficit to $1.9 million last fiscal year.
The state’s $2.4 million budget appropriation makes up the deficit. The rest of the $14.5 million operating costs are covered by revenue from events, tenants and visitors, plus contributions of the nonprofit Kentucky Horse Park Foundation.
One of the foundation’s fundraisers is a hospitality tent at the Rolex. Typically, people contribute at least $1,500 to get tickets for one day and pay more for additional days. According to Alston Kerr, recently removed as chair of the Horse Park commission by Bevin, Thayer regularly asked for and received, at no cost, four tickets to the hospitalty tent for each of the four days of the Rolex from former director John Nicholson. Nicholson contributed twice to Thayer campaigns while executive director and last year, after his departure, gave $1,000.
When Link arrived, Kerr said, he insisted things be done “by the book,” and limited Thayer’s free tickets to one day. “It became a bone of contention,” she said.
With this history, it’s reasonable to wonder what’s behind Thayer’s attacks which, Kerr said, are alarming people who actually ante up to support the Horse Park. Consider:
▪ He complained about a $6,000-a-month consulting contract for the Horse Park gift shop. “I would guess,” the shop “probably has a hard time netting $6,000” a month, he said. He would guess wrong. The shop had a 49-percent gross margin on $1.3 million in sales in 2015, according to a memo Link prepared. With the contract, a manager who resigned was not replaced, saving over $60,000 annually in salary and benefits.
▪ Thayer introduced a man who complained about New York-based Reserve America, which handles campground reservations. Link said he’s not happy either but is bound by a 10-year contract, signed under Gov. Ernie Fletcher, that gives Reserve America $7.50 per reservation, even if park staff handle the transactions. Link hopes to make changes when the contract ends.
▪ Thayer has made much of an audit released in March 2015 that found five significant shortcomings in Horse Park management. But that audit covered a four-year period ending June 20, 2014, before Link arrived at the Horse Park.
The Horse Park is important and the General Assembly should keep a close eye on it. But it must be guided by facts not uninformed attacks.