Cause to celebrate
Products Mart to buy arena
By Paul Huggins, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily
It was all smiles around the Racking Horse World Celebration on Friday as word spread the State Products Mart Authority agreed to buy Celebration Arena.
“It’s the best day in years,” said Judy Jones, past president of the Racking Horse Breeders Association of America and longtime advocate for it to sell the property.
“We are thrilled to death,” she said, showing the signed contracts that the sale, for all intents and purposes, is a done deal.
The sale must be posted publicly for seven days before the association can ratify it. A couple of weeks ago, the association approved the terms of the contract, and since nothing changed in the final negotiations, it’s just a formality to make the sale official, members said.
The sale was the culmination of months of negotiations among Products Mart, the racking horse association and the Morgan County Commission.
The association has tried to sell the arena for several years. It thought it sold the property in 2008, but the buyer had to back out of the contract before closing because of financial problems.
The association bought the 38-year-old, 118-acre site for $1.3 million in 1994. At the time, members thought the arena would pay for itself with events throughout the year while also ensuring the association would get to stay in Priceville, its home since conception.
In a three-way agreement, the Products Mart will pay the association $650,000 up front, the association will pay $30,000 a year rent for the next five years (four weeks usage per year) and the commission will appoint a parks and recreation board to operate the arena.
Dewey Hannon, of Amory, Miss., was one of the association members feeling upbeat after hearing of the sale.
“I think it’s going to be great for the community and for the equine industry as a whole,” he said. “We’re going to get some professional people in here now and promote this up.”
Hannon has wanted to spend money to improve the barn he rents three times a year, and he said he and other members will do so as they see Products Mart make improvements.
With the five-year-lease agreement, the association gets to keep revenue made from parking receipts as well as barn and stall rentals. The arena has about 650 stalls that rent for $100 each.
As part of the sale, Products Mart also agreed to build an outdoor, covered arena within the first year. It also agreed to make renovations and improvements to the property.
Ed Hiers, racking horse association president, said the outdoor arena will provide large horse shows, such as World Celebration, a much-needed warm-up ring.
It also gives Products Mart an extra revenue source, he said, because some small events lack the funds to rent the large arena, and other events, such as quarter horse shows, need two separate rings.
Beth Lake of Tuscaloosa, who showed racking horses at World Celebration for more than 20 years, said she was happy to hear about the sale and said she’d like to see air conditioning in the arena, restroom upgrades and brighter lighting.
Lake no longer shows horses but attends as a vender. She owns Pillows Abound Inc., which does embroidering and monogramming.
“I can only hope the improvements they need to make to this place won’t change the ambiance it has had,” she said. “We’re a family-oriented event; we don’t need to be too businesslike.”
Barbara Fitch, of London, Ky., who has attended World Celebration for about 25 years, said she would like to see a new indoor arena someday, but more pressing needs are drainage and electrical improvements around and in the barns.
“I think it will be a real plus for the county if they develop a park around this place,” she said. “It will be good to have some upgrades and also allow us to put all our money back into the industry. “Growth in our industry means growth for businesses in Decatur,” Fitch said.
Jones and Hiers said the best part of the sale is that it gets the association out of the arena business so it can put all its resources into promoting the breed.
In recent years, the association saw its membership dwindle to less than half what it was 10 years ago, and Decatur felt an economic sting.
In 2000, World Celebration attendees booked 2,529 room nights in Decatur. Five years later they bought 1,187 room nights.
Jones and Hiers said the association needs to work on showing off the breed outside its traditional Southeast and Midwest regions and refocus on supporting small shows in each state. If there is a strong network of Saturday night shows through the show season, it will lead to a resurgence of World Celebration.
“I’ve been coming here for 30 years,” Jones said, “and I want to come for 30 more, if I can live that long.”