What should be the future of the Salt Lake County Equestrian Park? The taxpayers of Salt Lake County subsidize the Equestrian Center in South Jordan $900,000 per year. Is that the highest and best use of this area and our taxpayer dollars? During the budget session last December I asked that our Community Services Department, which oversees the Equestrian Park, to prepare cost alternatives that identify optional uses for the Equestrian Center.
The Equestrian Center has been steadily losing more and more money every year. The County realized a few years ago that something needed to change since taxpayers’ operating subsidy was increasing, so it awarded a contract to the very capable SMG management company. SMG currently operates the Salt Palace, South Towne Expo Center, and several equestrian centers around the country. Even after almost two years under SMG’s management, the park is still on pace to lose millions more.
There are significant issues with the park that are beyond SMG’s control. There is a serious concern with deferred maintenance. Over the next five years infrastructure investments from $3.5 to $4.5 million will be needed, including new stalls. As if the millions in deferred maintenance isn’t enough, millions more are needed for the construction of a new building on site to make the park a more attractive place to hold events.
Whenever I vote on anything that comes before the council or evaluate a County program, I ask myself, “Is this the proper role of government?” Our parks and recreation department is there to promote health and well-being for the residents of Salt Lake County, which is a worthy cause. We try to provide recreational activities to help keep our community active and healthy. We don't provide opportunities for every person's individual recreational preferences. What about water sports? What about snowmobiling? There are plenty of fun recreational activities, but taxpayers shouldn't and can't fund everything. We put tax dollars into amenities that are in high public demand, make fiscal sense, and encourage families to have healthy lifestyles.
Parks preserve open space and are visited hundreds of thousands of times a year and can be used by all of Salt Lake County’s 1.1 million residents. Our golf courses are some of the best managed in the state and, in addition to preserving open space, turn a profit. The County subsidizes parks, on average, $5,000 per year per acre. The Equestrian Park is a revenue generator, but is being subsidized at $7,500 per acre. That is 50 percent more than the County subsidizes an acre of a public park. Even more interesting is that our Rec Centers have a 50/50 subsidy. There is not a single Rec Center in the county that is subsidized as heavily as the Equestrian Park.
Some may say that we should just invest in the Equestrian Park so that it will turn a profit. We will be looking at this, but preliminary numbers show we would have to put millions into the facility. Denver has a great Equestrian Center. Some have said we should invest in something similar for Salt Lake County. Denver put over $800 million dollars into their center.
I've had people say that the Equestrian Center provides other economic benefits that we just aren't considering - hotels, restaurants, shopping. We will have the economic impact measured in the coming months, but preliminary studies show there is a neglible economic impact. We are continuing to explore this.
But where will the County Fair be held? What about 4-H programs? Where will the Auto Show go? We are working with the State Fair Park to look at moving the County Fair there. There may be options to move 4-H groups there, as well. The South Towne Expo Center is a great facility for the Auto Show and some of the other events. I think these 4-H groups are wonderful and I am fully committed to making sure we have homes for these groups.
Whenever an organization or program is overseen by Salt Lake County or any government we must continually review what the highest and best use of taxpayer dollars is and let that guide our response. I know the Equestrian Park is an important place for some of our Salt Lake County residents. We are looking for some answers and will be anxious to see the upcoming recommendations by the Mayor's staff in April. They will give us several scenarios and the fiscal impact of each. Personally, I will be doing all I can to keep this area open space. I'm just not sure if that open space looks like an Equestrian Park, soccer fields, or something else. We will have more info in coming months.
Click here to read the Deseret News article on this issue
Fox 13 coverage of the Equestrian Park
Here is the budget line item showing the $900,000 subsidy:
Some people didn't believe that the Equestrian Park was really losing so much money, so I've included the actual 2016 budget: