Plan to privatize Colorado Springs’ Penrose Equestrian Center in jeopardy

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With financial support for the Penrose Heritage Foundation master plan voted down by the El Paso County Commissioners, organizers seeking to gain control of the El Paso County Penrose Equestrian Center will have to head back to the drawing board.

“This is D-Day,” said county administrator Terry Harris. “Decision Day.”

The proposed master plan called for a $3.57 million county subsidy to accompany a required $10 million reserve to be raised by the foundation. The subsidy would be divvied up to provide about $700,000 annually for the next five years with each outlay to be approved by the commissioners before disbursement. The money would cover $129,594 in average annual operating expenses; $107,917 in average capital improvements; $65,227 in average indirect costs (such as outside work); and allow for partial coverage of needed repairs and replacements of buildings and infrastructure.

The master plan also addresses such issues as what entities may participate in future sales of the property and what pricing structures may be used, and what types of events would be permitted on the grounds.

Monday’s 4-1 ruling, with commissioner Chuck Brown dissenting, didn’t please Penrose Equestrian Center advisory board member and master plan committee chair Jon Schultz. He said he was hoping the commissioners would reaffirm a funding commitment made last September. If that were to have happened, “the foundation could be operating (the center) by the second quarter of this year,” said Schultz.

“The organization (foundation) has a decision to make,” said County Commissioner Tom Huffman. “Do they want to go on without the promise of the supplement? They’ll probably be falling back and reevaluating the situation.

“The board is not down on the concept of privatization,” he continued, adding that the commissioners would entertain proposals that did not involve taxpayers’ money.

Huffman also has a problem with the concept of anonymous donors. Through Schultz, the donors who constitute the foundation have said they wanted a financial commitment from the county before shelling out funds. But Huffman wants a commitment from the donors in the form of releasing their names.

A third issue he is concerned about involves the possibility of a private investor purchasing the property sometime in the future, and restricting community access to it by building a wall around the property and turning it into a residential community for equestrian and recreational use. There is nothing in the present contract that precludes that from happening, he said.

With the $3.5 million subsidy now a thing of the past, Schultz will meet with master plan committee members within the next couple of weeks to discuss options. Of the two options he now sees, one would include continuing to tweak the current plan with input from citizens. He would persist in developing financial resources, then present the revised plan to the commissioners.

The second option would embrace “doing nothing,” said Schultz.

“The large majority of major donors have indicated a strong unwillingness to contribute if the county is not participating — $13.5 million is an awful lot of money to ask people to continue to (contribute to) a project that would not be or is not financially supported by the county,” he said. Schultz said he is fearful the foundation could “lose a substantial percentage of tentative donations” it had in place. Convincing gun-shy donors to reinstate their support could take up to one year, he added.

“There isn’t a better master plan,” he continued. “The fundamental concepts of the plan are the best things that could be for that facility. The real crux now is starting all over again with fundraising.”

Although master plan changes will be in response to citizen input, Schultz said he doubts the commissioners will change their minds.

A number of citizens at the meeting stated their support for continued operation of the equestrian center. They expressed reservations, however, about the lack of information available to support a final decision. Karen Laden was one who asked for “some breathing room” by suspending action pending the collection of accurate data such as zoning changes, street closings, and a feasibility study.

A feasibility study would cost between $15,000 and $25,000, said Renee Zentz, manager for the equestrian center. A study might normally cost about $10,000, but “there are not a lot of facilities like this,” she said, adding that they would have to pay for the learning curve. If the county agreed to the study, “it would catapult us to be committed.”

Commissioners agreed that any transference of the center from governmental to private ownership would have to be in the best interest of the community. Of the $10 million the foundation has committed to raise by private donations, it has raised more than $4.5 million.

“By privatizing, you’re making the decision to move in the right direction,” said National Little Britches Rodeo president Bob Simpson.

Zentz plans to participate in the March 15 work session where she will ask commissioners if they will be funding the center during the 2002 season or if the center (or a portion of the center) will be closed.

We have to run two years out,” said Zentz. “We are funded for 2001, but if we’re not going to be here in 2002, promoters have to go to other places.

“It’s going to cost them more than $3.5 million to keep things going as it is,” said Schultz. “As it continues to age, they will have to spend more money just to maintain the current status quo of the business.

“If we can’t work something out on the master plan I would not be surprised if they stop running it and they close it. I don’t think they have the intent to run it year in and year out under current (conditions),”Zentz said.

“Are we staying open?” asked Zentz. “Those are tough decisions that have to be made. That’s the hard truth of it.”