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WOKV INVESTIGATES: Jacksonville Equestrian Center’s future funding source is in question
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WOKV INVESTIGATES: Jacksonville Equestrian Center’s future funding source is in question

WOKV INVESTIGATES: Jacksonville Equestrian Center’s future funding source is in question
Photo Credit: Stephanie Brown

WOKV INVESTIGATES: Jacksonville Equestrian Center’s future funding source is in question

While the Veterans Memorial Arena, Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, and other Downtown venues are familiar to just about anyone in Jacksonville, there’s another City facility that sits along the Westside that, for years, has been known to a more niche audience- the Jacksonville Equestrian Center.  

The nonprofit that runs the venue has been working to grow its use and exposure, but has faced funding challenges, construction setbacks, and other problems in that goal. Now, the Equestrian Center sits at a critical time, where the City has to determine how to fund it moving in to the future. 

WOKV is bringing you a deep dive in to what’s brought this City-owned facility to this point, the funding questions looming, and how those involved believe it can turn around in the future. 

History 

In 2014, the nonprofit Northeast Florida Equestrian Society took over the management of the Equestrian Center from the City of Jacksonville’s contractor SMG. That company manages the other City venues, but the District Councilman at the time, Doyle Carter, convinced his colleagues that the Equestrian Center needed a more specialized touch. 

NFES does not receive a management fee, but is instead only paid for “actual, reasonable, and budgeted expenses to perform the Services”, according to the contract with the City. That document further says operating expenses are to be funded by revenue from the Equestrian Center, which includes donations, admission fees, concessions, advertising and sponsorships, and related sources. Ticket sale revenue is used for funds for performers or incidental expenses for an event, with any excess also going toward operating expenses. 

There is also the possibility to sell naming rights for various aspects of the Equestrian Center or even the Center itself, and that money would be used solely for capital improvements on site. 

NFES has been generating revenue, and that’s grown since they’ve taken over, but it has not been able to meet the expenses. As a result, the venue gets a City subsidy every year to cover the gap. 

Short term funding 

The subsidy is not new- predating NFES management, the highest level was in FY 2010-2011, where the Equestrian Center received more than $760,000 from the General Fund, which is the portion of the City budget comprised of your property tax dollars. 

When NFES took over, the funding was instead shifted to the Taye Brown Trust Fund, which is fed by a host fee for solid waste at the Trail Ridge Landfill, instead of tax dollars. Since they took full control in FY 2014-2015, the subsidy has largely stayed below the levels predating NFES management. In both this fiscal year and the last, the Equestrian Center received a little more than $400,000, but that number is up to $465,508 in the proposed budget for FY 2018-2019. 

Northeast Florida Equestrian Society
This funding chart assembled by the Northeast Florida Equestrian Society shows the financial support needed for the Jacksonville Equestrian Center over the years.
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Jacksonville Equestrian Center funding chart

Photo Credit: Northeast Florida Equestrian Society
This funding chart assembled by the Northeast Florida Equestrian Society shows the financial support needed for the Jacksonville Equestrian Center over the years.

 The numbers overall are also not matching projections for what NFES hoped to be doing at this stage. 

During budget hearings last month, the Mayor’s Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa said NFES revenue wasn’t only short of meeting expectations, but they were going to be short for the fiscal year overall. 

“This nonprofit has done a good job, but they’re beginning to slip here lately,” Mousa said. 

The Jacksonville City Council voted last Tuesday to allocate $50,000 to be used to allow the Equestrian Center to continue operating through this month. This was Carter’s last bill on the Council, although he was not actually present for the vote, because he previously stepped down from his seat in order to run for Tax Collector. 

The City Council bill also creates and funds an “Extraordinary Repair and Maintenance Budget”, which covers “large scale, non recurring repair of maintenance projects” like repairs from fire, storms, burglary, or structural failure, according to the contract. It further clarifies that the City is responsible for capital expenses over $2,500, which will be considered as part of the annual Capital Improvement Program that is put together during the City budget process. 

NFES says this is a crucial change, because it makes the City’s responsibility clear, helps them streamline the process, and potentially provides access to more funding for these emergency, unexpected infrastructure and equipment issues. 

NFES says the increase in this year’s budget proposal accounts for rising capital maintenance costs.

Between this fiscal year and the last, NFES says they have had some $90,000 in expenses come up because of infrastructure failure and equipment problems, including $9,000 for an elevator, $8,600 for the sprinkler system, $16,300 for repairing the indoor arena footing, $35,000 for equipment rentals, and more. They say, because the facility is now 14 years old and some of their equipment even predates that, issues like this aren’t uncommon, and are an obstacle to their goal of decreasing the subsidy the venue needs. 

“We would like to work towards that and strive to work towards that, but again, as the building is aging, we’ve got repairs that need to be done. As our equipment is aging, we’re having to rent equipment,” says NFES Board Chair Peggy Fuller. 

Stephanie Brown
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Jacksonville Equestrian Center indoor arena

Photo Credit: Stephanie Brown

NFES tells WOKV these emergency repairs and a capital project not being constructed according to its timeline led to them falling short of projections. 

The $50,000 in the City Council bill is coming from the Taye Brown Trust Fund as well, but that leads to another big decision pending in front of the Council, because the Trust Fund won’t be able to support the needed overall budget subsidy in the future. 

Long term funding 

The Taye Brown Trust Fund was identified several years ago by Carter and other Council members as a way to support the gap between the operating expenses and revenue at the Equestrian Center. The fund consistently brings in about $200,000 annually from the host fees, and is designated to use at the Taye Brown Regional Park, which includes the Equestrian Center. 

The demands of the venue have drained revenue from the Trust Fund quicker than it has been coming in. 

As a result, the Council Auditor’s Office says the Trust Fund has dropped from around $1.3 million in FY 14-15, to less than $450,000 as this fiscal year closes out. The FY 18-19 budget proposes $465,508 from the Trust Fund for the Equestrian Center. While the Trust Fund will be able to cover that, when the annual income from the host fee is considered, it will leave a very small balance, so the auditors do not believe this Fund will be viable for supporting the Equestrian Center in the future. 

“The concern is noted. If the Taye Brown Trust Fund runs out of cash, you either have to cut back on operational expenses or supplement with the General Fund. That’s your two options,” Mousa said during the recent budget hearing. 

IN DEPTH: Jacksonville’s $1.2 billion budget proposal

During this year’s budget hearings, Council members were cautious about adding any recurring expenses. While property values and construction have helped the General Fund overall grow in recent years, Florida voters will decide in November whether to give themselves an additional property tax exemption, which would leave an estimated $27 million hole in the City budget next fiscal year. That could make it difficult to absorb this venue’s subsidy in to the General Fund. 

But, through various budget and Council committee hearings, the ground has been laid for identifying some other funding line- General Fund or otherwise- not only because the Taye Brown Trust Fund will likely not cover the expense in the future, but because the City wants to allow the Trust Fund to recover, so it can be spent on the Taye Brown Regional Park overall, as initially intended. The Park is part of the Cecil Recreation Complex, with also includes ball fields, an Olympic-size pool, trails, and more. 

“It needs to start building back up, so we can do other economic impacts out there for the Sports Complex. So, in the future, that’s going to be an issue that’s going to have to be taken care of,” Carter said during a Committee hearing on the emergency maintenance funding bill. 

City of Jacksonville
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Olympic-size pool at the Cecil Recreation Complex

Photo Credit: City of Jacksonville

Stephanie Brown
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Trail entrance at the Jacksonville Equestrian Center

Photo Credit: Stephanie Brown

Growing in the future 

The contract with NFES was initially signed through the end of the next fiscal year September 30, 2019. It has since been extended through September 30, 2024, according to contract documents. Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department Director Daryl Joseph says NFES has been making progress- but he’s urging the City Council to be realistic. 

“I don’t want to paint the picture that this is ever going to be a revenue generating facility, because I don’t have that forecast. So, there may always be a need for a subsidy for this facility,” Joseph says. 

That isn’t necessarily a concern to some on the Council, with Councilwoman Lori Boyer highlighting that the General Fund subsidizes other venues like the Arena, Baseball Grounds, and more. NFES further says how the City acquired the overall land requires it be used for active and passive recreational purposes, and since voters approved the Equestrian Center under the Better Jacksonville Plan, the City has a responsibility to make sure it’s maintained.

Councilman Bill Gulliford also says, while revenue has fallen short of projections, it is getting better. 

“Some years ago, it was sort of desperate, so it’s really turned around,” Gulliford said during the Equestrian Center budget hearing. 

NFES views themselves as similar to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, where a non-profit operates that City venue. The Zoo, however, has received a $1.3 million allocation from the General Fund each of the last few years, and the Council is poised to approve a 5-year, $25 million capital funding plan to help the Zoo achieve their new Master Plan. 

Joseph says NFES has been doing well in trying creative ways to create more revenue and solicit more and different events. 

WOKV requested an interview with the City about the Equestrian Center, but received statements in response to our specific questions. They say it’s a “unique facility and venue” for Jacksonville, and they are “optimistic” about NFES’ commitment to improvement and what the future holds. 

NFES believes they are on the right path to turning around overall. Coming up Tuesday on WOKV, we’re bringing you a closer look at that progress, and the big projects NFES believes can be the start of a bright future.

Read More

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The video, which was obtained by multiple media outlets, begins with the officer wearing the camera racing toward the hotel in a police cruiser. As he approaches the scene, he does so without activating the car’s lights and sirens. His partner asks why. “If this guy’s looking out the windows, I’m not trying to let him see that we’re rolling around,” the officer responds. Once at the hotel, the officer is seen hurrying inside and asking a woman who appears to be a hotel housekeeper if she has the room information for Room 333, where Webb was staying. “I need it real fast,” he tells the woman, which sends her running into a small office, where she pulls Webb’s registration paperwork from a filing cabinet. The officer determines the man in the room matches the description of the wanted kidnapper. He takes the paperwork back outside, where some of his fellow officers are using flashlights to search the ground for clues. According to prosecutors, the officers had confirmed the presence in the parking lot of the car suspected in the abduction. Blood was visible on the front passenger seat, they said. The officer recording the search is seen handing a colleague the hotel paperwork, asking her to hold on to it. Meanwhile, other officers are already closing in on Webb upstairs. After obtaining a police shield, the officer with the body camera is seen running up several flights of stairs to the third floor, where a team waits outside Room 333. Webb and the girl are on the other side of the door. “Fort Worth PD, open the door,” an officer is heard calling as he knocks repeatedly, getting no answer. After several seconds, an officer gives the command, “Ram it.” As one officer kicks at the door and another readies a metal battering ram, Webb calls from the other side: “Hold on.” “Open the door! Open the door! Fort Worth Police Department! Open the door!” an officer yells. Webb doesn’t respond, so the officer with the ram begins striking the door. “Hold on, man, I’m getting dressed,” Webb calls. “Open the God-(expletive) door!” an officer yells back. The officer with the ram hits the door a fourth and final time as Webb tells officers he’s opening the door. “Hands. Let me see your hands,” an officer tells him as the door swings open. “Step out here. Step out.” “God (expletive),” Webb mutters, sounding annoyed, as the officers grab him and begin to pull him into the hallway, naked except for a pair of white socks. Two officers force him onto the ground and handcuff him as the rest swarm into the hotel room, guns drawn, in search of the girl. “Blood on the bed,” an officer notes as the beam of a police flashlight illuminates the room. A moment later, success. “Hey, here she is! Here she is!” an officer exclaims. The girl is seen rising from the plastic bin as the officer squats down to pick her up. Her small arms encircle his neck. “Got her! We got her! We got her!” another officer calls out in the video. Watch the footage below, courtesy of WFAA. Warning: The video may be difficult for some viewers. As the officers, out of breath but jubilant, radio in the news that the girl has been found and Webb is in custody, she is heard asking them about her clothes. “Don’t worry about your clothes,” an officer tells her. The officer wearing the body camera finds a towel to wrap around the girl. “Here you go, baby,” the officer says as he hands the towel to a colleague. They then head down the hotel stairwell with the girl. “Come here, sweetheart,” the officer says as he holds the door to the stairwell open. “You’re OK,” the officer carrying the girl says. “Yeah,” she responds. “You’re safe, we got you,” the officer continues as they begin their descent. “You’re going to be OK,” the officer filming the incident says. As they arrive in the parking lot of the hotel, the officers order two men in the parking lot to stand back. One of them is later identified as the girl’s father, who is on the phone telling someone where his daughter had been found. According to ABC News, the pastor who called in the tip about Webb’s car was also at the scene when the girl was brought out. A brazen daylight kidnapping  Officers wrapped Webb in a sheet and took him to the police station where, in a three-hour recorded statement, he admitted to kidnapping and raping the girl. According to the Star-Telegram, FBI Special Agent Chris Thompson and Fort Worth Police Detective Amy Heise asked Webb early in the interview if he knew why he was there. “A little girl,” he responded. “That little girl.” Webb initially lied to the investigators, claiming he’d been paid $1,000 by a man named Nick to abduct and sexually assault the 8-year-old, the newspaper reported. He came clean about two hours into the interview, telling Thompson and Heise they deserved the truth because they had “been nice to (him) considering what the (expletive) he did.” Crying at times, Webb told the investigators he arrived at the hotel with the girl around 8:30 p.m. after spending a couple of hours in the car in an empty church parking lot. He made her stay hidden on the front passenger floorboard of the vehicle, court records indicate. Webb admitted in his confession that he threatened the girl in an effort to keep her from telling police what he’d done to her. “What did you say to scare her, Michael?” Heise asks in the video. “I told her if she said anything, I would do something to her parents,” Webb says, sobbing. The girl told investigators that same threat is what kept her quiet the first time police showed up at the kidnapper’s hotel room looking for her. Webb’s federal public defender, John Stickney, attempted in September to get his confession thrown out, alleging that his client had not slept in three days and was not lucid enough the morning of May 19 to waive his right to speak without a lawyer present. Following a hearing that included testimony from Thompson, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor denied the motion, the Star-Telegram reported. During the trial, Webb’s lawyers did not cross-examine any of the prosecution’s witnesses or call any of their own. According to the newspaper, they urged jurors to ignore the emotions brought up by the testimony regarding the girl’s sexual assault. Stickney argued during his closing that the government failed to produce evidence that Webb was participating in interstate commerce during the crime, one of the elements that must be proven under the federal law against kidnapping. Court records in the case cite the hotel’s proximity to the interstate, making it a popular stopover for interstate travelers, as proof of that element of the kidnapping charge. Webb, who used Google maps on his cellphone to find the hotel, also drove along Interstate 35 and Interstate 20 to get there. “The cellphone, the internet and the interstate highways were used to facilitate and to further the commission of the offense because they helped Webb reach the hotel by the most direct route,” the documents say. The records and media reports describe how Webb, who was driving a gray Ford 500 registered to his mother, approached his victim and her mother twice as the pair walked along 6th Avenue in Fort Worth the evening of the abduction. According to the Star-Telegraph, the girl’s mother, who was not named to keep her daughter from being identified because of the sexual assault, testified at Webb’s September trial that he asked her upon his first approach if she wanted to get high. He also asked if she liked money, the woman said. Webb drove off but returned a short time later. That time, he got out of the car and grabbed her daughter, pushing the girl into the car through the driver’s door before climbing in after her. The girl’s mother tried to climb onto his lap to hit the brakes, but Webb was able to push her out of the car and speed away. In his confession, portions of which have been made public, Webb tells Thompson and Heise he “scoped (the neighborhood) out pretty good” in advance. Still, he said, he must have missed at least one witness. “When I pushed the woman and grabbed her, I heard somebody screaming. I heard somebody screaming,” Webb says in the video. That portion of the abduction was captured on a doorbell camera across the street from the scuffle. In the grainy footage, the girl’s mother can be seen falling to the asphalt as Webb drives off with her daughter. She gets up and runs down the street, screaming for help. “Help me! Help me, please!” the girl’s mother screams. “My daughter just got kidnapped!” Watch footage from the doorbell camera below, courtesy of ABC News. The homeowner of the home with the camera can be seen stopping in his yard and watching in alarm as the woman runs down the street. Webb’s car speeds off in the distance. The girl’s mother was equally frantic in her 911 call, which was obtained by ABC News. “A car, a gray car, just drove off. I think it was a handicap. He just kidnapped my daughter,” the panic-stricken woman tells the dispatcher. “He dragged me off the street and kidnapped my daughter.” The woman pleads with the dispatcher, describing the abductor as a scary man who had been harassing them. She says police need to find her daughter, now. “Please,” she tells the dispatcher. “I can’t let her be gone! Please!” A critical clue  Thompson, who works on the FBI’s Crimes Against Children and Human Trafficking Task Force, told ABC News the doorbell camera that caught the tail end of the abduction was a lucky break. The camera is not designed to record any random movement in the street, like a car driving past. It kicked on when the homeowner stepped outside. “The person who owned the home, essentially, accidentally activated the Ring doorbell at that time,” Thompson told the network. The footage, which gave investigators a look at the kidnapper’s vehicle, was crucial. “The Ring doorbell video was the only piece of video that was available for this particular case. It was absolutely critical,” the FBI agent said. The girl’s mother was also able to give detectives a description of the man who snatched her daughter. News of the abduction spread quickly through Fort Worth-area media, leading several members of the community to aid in the search for the missing girl. Heise, who led her department’s investigation, also reached out to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security for assistance. Heise told ABC News each moment that went by without word of the girl’s whereabouts and safety felt heavy. “It felt like time was flying by and that I was moving so slow, and that I just could not move fast enough,” Heise told the network. “Because I knew we needed to move fast, and it just felt like I just couldn't get it done.” The detective said she was in a “state of shock” when she learned the girl had been found alive. “I was working as hard as I could to find this little girl, and I just couldn't believe that we had done it,” Heise said. “And in that moment, I just felt a great sense of gratitude to the community, because they did this. They did this. It wasn't us.” Matthew DeSarno, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Dallas field office, said following Webb’s September conviction that he was proud of the collaboration of all those involved in the case, including his agency’s Child Exploitation Task Force and the Fort Worth Police Department’s Major Case Unit Task Force. He also thanked the citizen volunteers, who he said “worked tirelessly” to help bring the victim home to her family. “The critical role volunteer searchers and other members of the public played in recovering the victim cannot be overstated, and the FBI is grateful for their assistance,” DeSarno said. Following Webb’s sentencing Thursday, DeSarno said law enforcement and area residents took a dangerous predator off the streets. “Today’s sentence sends an important message to all predators,” the agent said. “We will not allow any crime against children to go unpunished.”
  • Moxie Kitchen and Cocktails at the Markets at Town Center will soon have a new name and a new menu. The restaurant announced on Facebook, that it will be changing its name to Prati Italia and will feature a new Italian menu, with handmade pastas, Roman-style pizzas, and craft cocktails.  Moxie Kitchen and Cocktails says a restaurant chain with an earlier registered variation of 'Moxie' has made plans to expand into the Florida market, prompting the changes.  However, the restaurant says it will keep the same chef, Chef Tom Gray, and team.  The grand opening for Prati Italia is set for mid-January. In the meantime, they will continue business as usual until the new year.
  • A man who was armed with a knife was shot multiple times by a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Officer on the northside this morning. As of a midday news briefing by JSO, the suspect was in critical condition at a hospital.  Police were called around 7:30 am about a suspicious person on Hawthorne Street near the Trout River.  Officers recognized the man as a suspect in a burglary in the same neighborhood on October 31st.  The man was standing in a yard with both hands in his pockets.  Chief TK Waters says two officers gave verbal commands for the man to show his hands.  “The suspect turned to run as officers approached. The suspect did remove his hands as he was running, they could not see it”, said Waters.  One of the officers deployed a taser and while the man fell to the ground, he was not incapacitated.  “As a second officer approached from a different direction, he fell to the ground in close proximity to the suspect. The suspect then turned toward the officer on the ground holding a knife in his right hand”, said Waters.  Officer RA Linde, an 11-year veteran with JSO, fired three times, striking the suspect. This is officer Linde’s first officer-involved shooting.  Both officers were wearing body cameras.  Police did not publicly release the suspect’s identity until his family is notified, however Chief Waters said the suspect has prior convictions for several burglaries as well as a drug conviction. 

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