WOKV INVESTIGATES: Long-delayed covered arena could be turning point for Jacksonville Equestrian Center

Jacksonville, FL — The Jacksonville Equestrian Center sits at a critical time for determining how it’s funded in the future, but it’s also at a turning point for realizing the potential of what the property can be.

“This is the crown jewel of the Westside. We’re very proud of it, and we hope people will come out and enjoy it,” says Northeast Florida Equestrian Society Board Chair Peggy Fuller.

WOKV brought you an in depth look Monday at the cost challenges that have beset the venue in recent years. The nonprofit running it, Northeast Florida Equestrian Society, believes they are on the road to turning that around, once they get their new covered arena open and in use.

It’s just one of several projects and programs designed to not only start cranking up the venue’s use, but better connect it with the community.

Covered arena

The Equestrian Center’s contract says the first priority of NFES is adding a covered outdoor arena. That offers many different opportunities when partnered with the main arena- from a large show running more efficiently with multiple spaces, to a large show expanding further because of the additional space, to the ability to run two compatible shows at once in the two separate covered spaces. Because the new covered ring will be open air on the sides, it will also let the Equestrian Center increase programming in the summer, since the main arena now does not have air conditioning.

For NFES, this gives them a space to host smaller community events, while also positioning them to be more competitive for large, national competitions.

“To make this facility something that’s a destination, and people are proud of. This is a draw to Jacksonville, that this is somewhere somebody wants to come,” says NFES past Board Chair Joanne Connell.

IN DEPTH: Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry's $1.2 billion City budget proposal

In fiscal year 16-17, the City Council committed $1.3 million for a covered ring, and NFES has secured a donation to match that, as part of a naming rights agreement for the space. The contract amendment between the City and NFES initially outlined the project’s completion as October 1, 2018.

To date, the construction has not actually started.

During recent City budget hearings, Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department Director Daryl Joseph said part of the reason NFES didn’t meet revenue projections is because those were put together with the expectation the new covered arena would be up and running. The City blames the delay on a number of factors, including the weather, hurricane and project design. NFES says the delay was driven in large part from the City- they took months to review and approve the donor match agreement, and once that was done, NFES says City codes had changed, so they had to deal with design changes and code variances.

The City confirms the funding for the project is still allocated, and it’s believed the projection for the total project cost will still hold, despite the delay. The project timeline has also received a one-year extension, following a City Council vote last week.

The plan is to take two existing outdoor rings and combine them in to one new 270x270 sq ft ring, that has footing to match the interior arena. A 300x300 sq ft cover will hang over that ring and will connect to the existing arena, with a buffer space in between the two buildings serving as a livestock holding area.

Fuller says they already have events that have committed to expanding, once the covered arena is in place. They’re also hoping it will lead to a major show anchoring in Jacksonville, meaning they schedule the same weekend here every year. NFES is not yet booking events for the venue, because of the delays that have taken place with construction. They’re now hoping to be able to break ground soon, with completion of the project late Spring or early Summer.

With how the shows are booked- several years in advance- Fuller says it could take that long to see the full benefit, but the patience will be worth the wait.

Other improvements on site 

The long-range plan has even more improvements for the site, both in infrastructure and offerings. NFES believes the next phase should be the support around the new covered ring.

With 423 stalls currently spread across four barns, NFES hopes to start selling out more, once the new venue creates more demand. If the demand increases enough, they could potentially build even more barns in the future, which feeds a primary revenue source for them- stall rentals.

GALLERY:Jacksonville Equestrian Center

With expanding space for the horses, comes the need for their human counterparts to go somewhere. NFES hopes to add more RV rental sites in the future, to achieve that.

The contract “Work Plan” between the City and NFES says the nonprofit will refurbish barns, stalls, camping and RV spots, trails, parking, and landscaping. The Plan also calls for new bathroom and shower facilities near barns three and four, improved pavilions, additional livestock pens, covered bleachers, and much more. The Equestrian Center Master Plan includes a lot of this, and NFES is already separately working on more ring space, which is being funded by private donations.

There are also on-site revenue services that are growing. They would like to expand the therapeutic equipment they have for horses, which could then be rented by horse owners at events. NFES further tells WOKV they also may have a donor lined up for a farrier space on-site, whereas any farrier or vet who provides services for events currently has to do work in the stalls.

Equine Therapy program 

Another hallmark of the Equestrian Center’s future is a planned “state of the art” equine therapy program.

Fuller says they have a sponsor that allows them to start the program by partnering with an accredited therapy group, which brings horses to the Equestrian Center and performs the services. They hope to ultimately be able to build a separate structure on the property to house the program full time.

“Our theory is start small and build slowly, and then we’ll be successful. If you dive in, I think, all at once, you sometimes overstep. We want to start small and build,” she says.

The program provides both physical and mental therapy services, for everyone from veterans to people with autism.

“It’s exciting now that this has been actually realized, assisted therapy has been realized as a true therapy. And we want to be involved in that,” Fuller says.

Connell says they’re especially proud of being able to aid the military community through this service, because of the origin of the land, which used to be with Cecil Field.

Diverse programming 

The Equestrian Center is only one of the facilities in that area. Taye Brown Regional Park includes the Equestrian Center, the Cecil Recreation Complex’s Aquatic Center, and the ballfields. There are also miles of trails- including ones you can take a horse on- and a golf course nearby.

The contract between the City and NFES talks about partnering with those other venues to create “destination package deals”. NFES says they absolutely see the surrounding attractions as benefiting them, in creating more appeal in the immediate area.

The “Work Plan” further speaks about not only expanding equine-related events, but other community and diverse activities.

“A big boost at other equestrian centers is the development and ownership of ‘downtime’ nonrated shows that will fill low-demand calendar dates,” the contract says.

NFES believes the therapy program can ultimately be something that helps program the Equestrian Center every day, because it will run on week days, when large shows and events typically aren’t taking place. They’ve also already grown substantially in attracting a range of events. From dog agility shows, to RV shows, FDOT Career Day, concerts, rodeos, and much more, NFES has focused on bringing in something for everyone.

“Most of our events are free and open to the public. There’s no parking fee, there’s no entrance fee, and we want people to come, encourage people to come and see what we have our here,” Fuller says.

Marketing 

The City also continues to explore how to help promote the venue.

In recent action recommended by the Tourist Development Council and approved by the City Council, guidelines were created to establish criteria for awarding all tourism development grants, including those used for marketing and special events. Part of that included setting aside $20,000 specifically for promotion the Equestrian Center, separate from the $800,000 in Special Event Grants that cover other events and City venues. According to the City, this funding will be used specifically to lure events that draw participants from outside of the area, and for advertising events at the venue.

The grant money was pulled from the overall special events fund because of the unique nature of the Equestrian Center and events being recruited. As such, the TDC and Visit Jax wanted it to be handled differently. Jacksonville Equestrian Center Executive Director Tim Jones says the core problem is that the standard grants are being measured by hotel night, but that’s not the metric that most accurately represents the economic impact they have, since many participants stay in RVs or scatter at hotels that accommodate dogs or other animals they travel with. Instead, he envisions something that gives more weight to stall nights, for these new grants.

“It’s a City facility that attracts tourists, and we [the TDC] thought there was an opportunity to help them bump the level of their game, if they could offer some grants to some of the people to bring in the kind of ‘National Championship of X’, as opposed to just having the regional competitions,” said City Councilwoman Lori Boyer, during the TDC’s recent budget hearing.

The funding is coming from the City’s tourism development tax, as part of the TDC budget.

Looking ahead

NFES understands that not everyone is familiar with- or necessarily even in support of- the Equestrian Center, but they’re continuing to work to change that. Highlighting that this is a Better Jacksonville Plan project, Fuller says voters supported it ahead of its construction in 2004, and now there is a need to maintain it, and an opportunity to program it to its fullest.

NFES is committed to continuing to educate the City Council and community at large on the events and opportunities the venue holds. With most of the events at the Equestrian Center being free and open to the public, they’re hoping everyone takes the time to visit- not just those passionate about horses and equestrian events.

In the coming year, the City of Jacksonville will closely consider how to subsidize this venue in the future. NFES says they will closely partner in those discussions, and continue to prove why they believe this is a worthwhile investment.

WOKV continues to track how Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and the City Council are spending your tax dollars, with the final vote on the City’s $1.2 billion budget proposal coming next week.

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