By Carolyn Holtzman
Four weeks ago, Lexington City Council members and Rockbridge County supervisors didn’t like the answers they got when Virginia Horse Center officials came to them asking for an increase in the lodging tax to help the horse center get out of debt. They told the horse center to come back with better answers.
They might have gotten more than they bargained for at a second work session Monday night.
Horse center officials did provide a more concrete plan and some financial data they had been asked for. But they also announced a change in leadership. Board president Steve McBroom has resigned, and executive director Katharine Truitt will retire as soon as a successor can be hired.
Neither Truitt nor McBroom attended the work session, and Truitt did not respond to multiple phone messages from The Rockbridge Report.
The changes were revealed Monday night by the horse center’s new board president, Ernest M. Oare.
“This business generates about $4 million now, but we have $12 million in debt,” Oare told the joint meeting. “You don’t have to be John Paul Getty to know that ain’t gonna fly. So we had to tighten our belts, and tightening your belt is never fun.”
The horse center is asking Lexington and Rockbridge County to increase the local lodging tax by one cent per dollar to help the facility pay off an $11.2 million loan. Lexington and county officials still weren’t ready Monday to approve the request.
In 2013, the city lodging tax raised about $81,000 and the county’s raised about $419,000 for the horse center. Horse center officials estimate a 1-cent-per-dollar increase in both taxes would add about $260,000 next year.
County Supervisor Buster Lewis was impressed by what he heard from horse center officials Monday.
“I regretted the tone of the first work session,” Lewis said in an email after the meeting. “But I believe it may have served the purpose of clearing the air and making clear to the [horse center] Foundation board that profound change in direction and leadership … was necessary to achieve additional local governmental support.”
Oare and horse center board member H.E. Buddy Derrick Jr. represented the horse center during Monday’s meeting. They also brought along Glenn Petty, a former member of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association and founder of the racing website Virginia Horseracing News.
Petty worked with the horse center board to create a detailed budget. He presented a short-term plan covering the next six months and a long-term plan for the 18 months after that.
Petty’s short-term plan includes the lodging tax increase request, a public relations and social media campaign for the horse center, a search for loans based on conservation easements and the facility’s location near the Chesapeake and Maury rivers, and management reorganization.
But he made clear that the horse center is depending on the local governments.
“The long-term plan is contingent on the short-term plan,” Petty said. “And the short-term plan depends on the lodging tax increase.”
Tom Clarke, the new owner of Natural Bridge, also spoke in support of the horse center.
“The [American] quarter horse was created in Virginia,” Clarke said. “Thoroughbreds were cultivated here. If there should be a horse center that is world class, it should be here in Virginia, and we are blessed it’s here in Rockbridge County.”
Clarke also supported the horse center’s request to raise the lodging tax.
“I am absolutely convinced that there is a very viable business plan for the [horse center]” he said. “But what it needs today is friends and partners.”
County Supervisor Rusty Ford said in an email after the meeting that he was “cautiously optimistic.”
“That the horse center appears to have begun to embrace the Clarke plan is, for me, the primary source of optimism,” Ford said. “Mr. Petty was also a refreshing presence, especially when he acknowledged that management could have done a better job of marketing [the horse center] and was now looking to do so.”
But Ford continued to express some concerns.
“[The] question as to whether [horse center] has the cash to survive this season reflected our shared observation that, so far in this process, [its] leaders have excelled mostly at placing blame for their problems elsewhere,” Ford said. “The concern is that, should local government not agree to [horse center] requests, they will simply shut the doors of what all agree is a major driver of the local economy – and then blame us.”
Horse center board members said they intend to become more available to local officials and to the public. The board under its new president scheduled a meeting for Thursday to begin implementing its new spending plan.
“If we’re taking money from the state, we have to be transparent,” Petty said. “Actions starting with Thursday’s meeting will hopefully start this.”
The City Council and county supervisors will wait to hear how that meeting goes before taking action on the lodging tax request.
But Lewis is optimistic about the horse center’s future.
“There seems to be new energy, and the participation of Tom Clarke is impressive,” he said. “I look for continued improved communication and eventual action of some sort to preserve this vital part of the county’s economy.”