Since opening in 2004, the Better Jacksonville Plan project hasn’t had revenue that matched expenses — coming in at least more than $4 million short, a deficit picked up by taxpayers.
There was an extra $390,000 needed from in fiscal 2006-07 to break even, which jumped to $1.3 million years later in 2009-10 in the middle of an economic downturn. This year it needed $478,000.
The constant pattern wore on some City Council members during budget cycles, at times leading to calls from some of them to defund and altogether close the Westside facility.
Council member Doyle Carter has made turning around the facility in his district a priority since he was elected in 2011.
Tuesday, he hopes, will be the start of that turnaround.
With council approval, a nonprofit group of horse enthusiasts will take over the facility’s management and operations from SMG with a goal of making it self-sufficient over the next five years.
“That’s the goal,” said Stephanie Stalvey, chairwoman of the Northeast Florida Equestrian Society. “We don’t want taxpayers to keep funding it.”
The society’s board will oversee and lead fundraising and capital campaigns while hiring an operations manager to handle day-to-day operations. There also is an eight-member advisory board in place, which includes Daily Record publisher Jim Bailey.
It’s a structure comparable to that of the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, she said, while the vision for the center’s success is modeled after similar facilities in Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia.
Constant revenue from show bookings, repeat business, fundraising and naming rights’ opportunities will help capital projects such as covering arenas, adding shade, bleachers and picnic areas.
With bike trails, a golf course and large city swim facility nearby, Stalvey said there is an opportunity to change perceptions and make the venue a destination for more than a single show.
But, it will be the shows that help bring in needed revenue and now with a consistent presence, she expects an uptick in bookings. Shows in the industry are often booked years in advance and with the constant rumors of closing, she said it “spooked” a lot of people into making Jacksonville that destination.
“We want to build it out, market it, re-establish it,” she said. “We want to make it something special … it has not been utilized to its full advantage.”
Diversification could be key.
In addition to promoting it for booking smaller scale shows, ridings or even weddings, Stalvey said there are other opportunities — like hosting flag football leagues in the summer, trade fairs, obstacle trails for fundraising nonprofits, movie nights on weekends, community gardens and so on.
Ideally, she said, the venue would be home to multiple events at once — think a larger, regional show in the main arena in conjunction with smaller, local shows and events.
One of the big components to becoming financially independent will be the addition of a therapeutic riding center that would work with Wounded Warrior Project and others for equine therapy and rehabilitation. A donor offered $2 million toward the project years ago and remains on board, Stalvey said.
Over the next five years, the group is scheduled to have city financial assistance in the form of a trust fund created years ago for such an endeavor. Next year it will be $287,000 and expected to drop to $83,000 needed the final year.
If the group breaks even by the final year of the contract, a renewal clause automatically triggers.
Council member Richard Clark has been one of several who have been critical of the facility’s finances.
“It’s been very difficult to get anything going out there,” he said Wednesday.
The group, he says, is incredibly passionate about the project and now is working together. Clark said Carter, and his predecessor Daniel Davis, deserve credit for seeing through the issue after years of struggle.
He said he’ll vote in favor of the bill Tuesday to turn over the facility to the nonprofit. He said hopefully, it can end up becoming a success after years of losing money. “This has been a long time coming,” he said. “I think this is their best shot.”
For years, the city’s Equestrian Center has been a money loser.