First Posted: 1/15/2009
LUMBERTON - Time really is money for supporters of a proposed horse arena at the Southeastern N.C. Regional Agriculture Center /Farmers Market.
The facility had an $18 million price tag when it was first suggested last year. Ten months later, the same facility is expected to cost $23 million.
“The price of steel and the price of concrete have all gone up,” said County Manger Ken Windley, a proponent of the facility. “If we wait longer, it'll probably rise more.”
Windley has proposed a 3 percent hotel/motel room occupancy tax to help build the horse arena. The tax would raise about $350,000 a year, enough to finance a $6 million loan to get the project started. Windley said the county would try to get grant money to pay for the balance.
The next step for the county is to get ownership of the Southeastern N.C. Regional Agriculture Center /Farmers Market, which is necessary to get grants. The horse arena is seen as a way to make the facility self-sustaining.
Critics also worry about how the facility could affect county taxpayers if it turns into a white elephant. But Windley and other supporters say any new costs to the county would be offset by additional taxes brought in by new motels and restaurants that would located never the facility.
The proposed tax hike has not been well-received by the tourism industry, which fears travelers would elect not to spend the night - and their money - in Robeson County. County leaders concede that they will have to work harder this time to convince the local lodging industry that a facility that attracts hundreds to the county for horsing events benefits everyone.
Rep. Ron Sutton of Pembroke says there is support in the General Assembly for the tax if he can show strong local support - a message he has shared with the county Board of Commissioners.
“Our lower tax rate is our major competitive advantage, particularly with tour groups,” said Mary Taylor, director of the Lumberton Area Visitors Bureau. “Tourism is alive and well in Robeson County and we want to keep it that way.”
Taylor says she is not confident that an arena would provide the economic boon that supporters predict.
“These shows are one and two days long,” she said. “Hotels must have seven days of business to survive.”
Taylor said county leaders have tried to use the horse arena in Williamston as an example of what such a facility can do for an area. But Taylor said she was less than impressed after talking with hotel managers there. She said they reported occupancy rates of 40 to 45 percent, well below the industry break-even point of 70 percent.
“That's like a grocery store selling one isle of food a day,” said Marcelle Jackson, regional director of sales for Fairfield and Hampton Inn.
Jackson, saying that many horse show participants don't use hotels, said the arena wouldn't generate enough additional to offset what would be lost because of the higher tax rate. The proposed hike would add $1.50 to the cost of a $50-a-night room.
“From my understanding, some people that come in for horse shows bring their own RVs,” Jackson said. “I chatted with a few horse owners and many said they didn't want to leave their horses.”
Michael Goldberg, general manager of Williamston Fairfield Inn and Suites, said that even though his hotel is situated directly across from the Sen. Bob Martin Eastern Agricultural Center, occupancy hovers around 45 percent.
“During the most recent show weekend, we had 69 out of 101 rooms booked on Friday and 47 of 101 rooms on Saturday,” he said. “But if there wasn't a show, we would probably only rent 20.”
Goldberg said that even when shows are in town, participants only stay for half a week. That leaves three or four days with little activity. Currently, there is no event scheduled at the horse arena until mid-January.
“So, I'm looking at two months of non-occupancy,” Goldberg said.
But Lumberton may not share Williamston's problems, he said, because the cities aren't comparable.
“Williamston is a small, rural community with no movie theater or chain restaurants to rely on for dinner,” Goldberg said. “Lumberton is situated on Interstate 95, which is a major corridor for people.”
Because Williamston lacks amenities, it loses business to nearby Rocky Mount and Greenville, he said.
Brian Dygert manages the Sen. Bob Martin Eastern Agricultural Center .
“We have surpassed the feasibility study,” Dygert said. “Everything they expected us to do in six years, we did in four. I have not had any two years that are status quo.”
The arena is booked for 44 weekends this year, Dygert said, and 48 weekends have been booked for 2006.
In spite of the success, the arena still relies on state money to make its budget each year, but Dygert said that should eventually change.
“We expect to be receipt driven in the next three to four years,” he said.
Dygert echoed Goldberg's assessment regarding the differences between Lumberton and Williamston.
“Lumberton has some key functions, one being that it sits near the South Carolina border,” he said. “South Carolina has a high demand for horse show facilities.”
If Lumberton's horse arena were to thrive, Dygert said, it would have to find its niche in the large and diverse horse world. Arenas have to be specialized for different competitions, he said.
“Each competition has specific needs, like the type of ground in the arena and the infrastructure,” he said.
Plus, national and regional sanctioning bodies restrict arenas in close proximity with each other from hosting similar shows at the same time.
“The question is: Will there be enough support to have a show in Williamston one week and Lumberton the next?” Dygert said.
Windley believes there will be enough support to sustain the arena, but it will take time.
“You have to get into the loop. You have to work your way into the business,” he said. “There is the case of Williamston, but it has taken them four to five years to get the amount of horses they have.”