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City considers cutting Horseman's Club loose

By Melissa Crowe
Sept. 1, 2012 at 4:01 a.m.
Updated Sept. 4, 2012 at 4:04 a.m.

Victoria Horseman's Club has been in Riverside Park since 1953. The City Council met in closed session in August to discuss action about the club's lease, which it says is not in compliance.

City officials may cut ties with the Victoria Horseman's Club, citing years of noncompliance as a reason for possibly ending its lease.

However, club president Moses Moore, as well as several members, said the city is unfairly nitpicking the organization.

"It's a battle every time we turn around," Moore said. "I feel like they're trying to push out us, not the city, but someone is trying to."

Victoria Horseman's Club has been in Riverside Park since 1953.

Parks and Recreation Director Doug Cochran said during the past 10 years the club has been an issue. Its current lease is set to expire Dec. 31, 2014.

"We're constantly always having to fix up their facilities and send reminders of what they're supposed to be doing with the lease agreement," he said.

The bathrooms need repairs, the roof of the concession building needs to be replaced and the interior needs major upgrades, Cochran said.

"I spend more time dealing with the Horseman's Club than any other lessee in the park: you haven't done this, please provide this," he said. "We're constantly sending communications, calling and asking for what's in the lease."

Moore said they addressed the bathroom issue, which seems to be the main focus of the city's argument. The club brought in Tim Westphal, a consultant, to make recommendations about the bathroom facilities.

Because renovating the existing 40-year-old structure would not be cost-effective, they opted to bring in handicap accessible portable toilets.

Meanwhile, the club is still feeling the effects of the 1998 flood, which wiped out its stalls and damaged other infrastructure.

Councilman Tom Halepaska brought the issue back up to the City Council in July.

"We let these groups use city land at no cost, but in doing so, they provide a public good," he said. "The intent is, let's get this fixed up."

He stressed that tearing down the facility is not on his radar.

"I would hate if in a year or two, it looked the same," Halepaska said. "I want to see an improvement."

He said the club has the potential to be a wonderful asset. At one time, it considered offering horse rides through the park, but that never materialized, Halepaska said.

He wants to see it benefit all residents and taxpayers.

"I'm trying to assess it reasonably and clearly," he said. "All options are on the table."

Those options include pulling the plug on the lease, giving the club another chance and calling for an audit or accepting proposals from other nonprofits that want to use the facility.

Mark and Sally Barnes are two longstanding members.

Mark Barnes, who serves as club treasurer and is a former club president, said its relationship with the city has never been on good terms.

"Our mission has always been to help the kids," Barnes said. "We realize that things aren't the same as they were 60 years ago. We're all busy working, our kids are grown, but there's a new crop of kids and we're trying to do for them."

Sally Barnes said the facilities have all been built with volunteer help and club dollars. Because the concession stand and bathrooms are permanent structures, they belong to the city, while the arena structure belongs to the club.

"We're a small club, we have limited resources," Sally Barnes said. "We want to be a good organization that contributes something to the city that allows people a place to ride their horses in a safe environment."

She and Mark said they feel the club is in compliance with the lease.

"The perfect solution would be to have a new location other than Riverside Park," he said.

Gary Burns, a county commissioner and member of the horseman's club, said he is aware of the situation at Riverside Park.

"Years ago, there was a group of older gentlemen who took care of it," Burns said Thursday from the American Quarterhorse World Show in Amarillo. "They were down there every day and they had the time, there was more interest."

He said his intent is not to criticize the arena's management.

For about the past seven years, he has explored what it would take to open a large multi-use facility that could benefit equestrian sports while having convention space for the city and sporting space for University of Houston-Victoria.

"If we build an arena, the city builds a convention center and UHV builds a sports center, we're all working against each other," Burns said.

A public-private partnership would have a better chance to be profitable, he said.

"If we get the right people together ... we can build something to serve the community much better," he said.

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