By Paul Huggins, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily
PRICEVILLE — The 38-year-old Morgan County Celebration Arena has been called a broken-down old horse barn.
Some saddle-bred horse owners once described it as too unsafe to keep their horses there, and its former owner admitted it didn’t have the money to keep up with maintenance.
So why are participants at this week’s Racking Horse Spring Celebration beaming with the same sense of optimism their predecessors did when the facility opened in the early 1970s?
After three decades of unfulfilled promises to make the arena capable of hosting much more than horse shows, the new owner, the state Products Mart Authority, has shown it will make good on its promises.
Facility improvements, and the stated vision for as much as $1 million in additional improvements, are among the reasons the Racking Horse Breeders Association of America feels it is at the threshold of a new era, said Chris Walker, association president.
For starters, Products Mart, which bought the arena and the surrounding 218 acres in December, has built a covered warm-up arena. That had been on the association’s wish list for 10 years, Walker said, but it never had the funding.
In addition, the new owner made improvements to basic and longstanding needs, he said.
There’s a new water system, which is bringing adequate water pressure to all the barns. The concession stand received a thorough cleaning, and truckloads of fresh gravel helped smooth out ruts and pot holes around the property.
The first World Celebration was held in Birmingham, but the racking horse association’s founder, Joe Bright, and three local doctors built the Southeastern Horse Center giving the breed a permanent home from which to grow.’
It started as an outdoor ring. Then a roof covered the track, and in 1975, at a cost of $96,000, the walls were added, enclosing a 316-by-225-foot area.
At that time, it touted itself as the largest horse arena in the Southeast.
During its first decade, it hosted motorcycle races, tractor pulls, bluegrass festivals, 4-H competitions and flea markets, in addition to several large horse shows. In 1980, billionaire and former presidential candidate Ross Perot visited the arena to watch his walking horse compete.
But as early as 1982, the owners wanted out, and two years later they gave the facility to the Boys Club of Decatur. The club hired a full-time manager to promote the arena, and 1985 showed promise.
That year, country music stars Waylon Jennings, Charlie Daniels, Lee Greenwood, Sawyer Brown and B.J. Thomas performed there, as did the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
But the arena went through three separate owners by 1990, with each aiming to bring in more events between horse shows. One owner even spoke of adding air-conditioned sky boxes and two restaurants.
Despite unfulfilled promises in the past, the RHBAA is confident Products Mart will not fail, Walker said.
Enthusiasm is apparent in the barns, where rented stalls for horses increased significantly this year. Last year’s Spring Celebration filled 180 to 200 stalls. This year’s event filled about 300.
Ed Monroe, Products Mart chairman, said he believes the arena can be in use every weekend if managed and equipped properly. He envisions it hosting high school graduations, large family reunions, concerts, motocross, tractor pulls and other sporting events.
‘Diamond in the rough’
“It’s just a diamond in the rough that hasn’t been polished in a good while,” he said.
Once the arena starts showing its full potential, Monroe said, it will be easier to get more investment from local groups and governments as well as state and federal grants.
His vision calls for repairing leaks in the roof, hooking up to natural gas so heaters can be installed and used for winter events, renovating restrooms, putting in new bleachers, installing powerful air return systems to allow events like tractor pulls that stir up a lot of dirt, and painting the entire facility.
“I guess our ultimate goal is to get grant money and build a new (agriculture) center that will be nicer,” he said. “But we’re going to maintain the one we got now and keep it in use.
“We’ve been promised a lot of help from state and federal (governments),” Monroe said. “If that transpires, we’ll be able to have that a showplace within a year or so.”