SALT LAKE CITY — When thousands of horse owners last year protested the possibility of closing the Salt Lake County Equestrian Center amid struggles to pull the park's budget out of the red, county leaders committed to investing in the park.
The County Council made good on that commitment Tuesday by granting park officials' request for $250,000 — on top of the annual $900,000 subsidy for the equestrian center — to cover costs of what one council member called "growing pains."
Those budget needs include a shortfall of $90,000 due to loss of horse boarders following a $10 increase to the monthly rate, as well as the eviction of problem boarders and unforeseen costs to replace broken maintenance equipment, said Holly Yocum, the county's director of community services.
Plus, the park lost another $30,000 because of a decline in daily and annual ride pass sales ever since fee increases were implemented in January, Yocum said.
"I think that the equestrian park is a volatile beast in some respects," said Dan Hayes, general manager of SMG Salt Lake, the management company that oversees the park's operations. "I think this year we've proven that our clientele has some significant price sensitivity, something we certainly have to be aware of moving forward."
The passage of the parks bond last year means the county will be investing in needed maintenance, Hayes noted, but it will "take some time" before the park begins attracting new users.
"I think those projects will take a year to two years to truly actualize before we get some of that benefit and stability," he said.
County officials last year began grappling with the equestrian park, questioning whether it's worth the nearly $1 million annual cost to taxpayers. The center operates on a budget of nearly $2 million per year, but revenue generated by events and boarders only funds half of that.
The park also faces up to $4.5 million in needed maintenance over the next five years.
To make ends meet this year, Yocum and Hayes asked the County Council to transfer $200,000 from the Salt Palace Convention Center budget and $50,000 from South Towne Expo Center, as both venues have enjoyed a "fantastic" 2017, Yocum said.
County Councilman Jim Bradley urged his colleagues to support the budget adjustment, noting that when county leaders committed to invest in the equestrian park, it obviously wasn't going to be an overnight fix.
"You have to give it a bit of time for the rejuvenation to take place," Bradley said, noting the loss of boarders due to "sticker shock."
"There's a cadre of people out there who love their horses dearly and support the equestrian park," he said. "Let's not forget that segment of our community we serve."
Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton was also supportive, saying she can "understand the growing pains as we adjust."
Councilman Michael Jensen agreed, pointing out that the council "did give a commitment" to the horse community, adding that choosing not to invest because of a "one-year snapshot" would be "shortsighted."
"Now, long term," Jensen said, "if we see that it's trending this way, then I think we do need to make some tough decisions."
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