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Horse arena coming to town
Economic experts say strong facility should attract lots of shows
Tom Couch horse for web
Bulloch County manager Tom Couch holds plans for an agricultural arena. Couch said a team has been put together to develop plans for the new facility which will be located on Langston Chapel Road across from Langston Chapel Middle and Elementary schools. - photo by JAN MOORE/staff

Couch horse arena

    The dream held by many local equine enthusiasts of Bulloch County building an agricultural arena is about to come true. Bulloch County manager, Tom Couch, said a team has been put together to develop plans for the new facility which will be located on Langston Chapel Road across from Langston Chapel Middle and Elementary schools.
    "The county has entered into a contractual agreement with a Philadelphia based international facilities management firm, SMG, to serve as the county's representative and consultant in the design and construction phase of the new arena," Couch said. "Savannah based, Hussey, Gay, Bell & DeYoung will serve as the  engineering and architectural design firm for the project."
    Couch said he hopes that construction on the new arena will begin this fall.
    "For the next three to four months, site engineering will be on a parallel track with architectural design and concept development," he said. "During that time,  I will be determining how much money we are going to have available for the project."
    Couch said even though it appears there will be between $6 million and $6.5 million from the current SPLOST for the project, additional funds may need to be raised.
    "I sort of  feel like we need to accumulate around $8 million somehow, and those additional funds can be gathered through grants, and the piecing together of funds from different sources," he said. "I just want to make sure that the arena and accompanying facilities are done right from the beginning, to ensure that the project has long term sustainability."
    SMG spokesperson, Preston Williams, said the new arena could and should have a very positive impact on Bulloch County, and its construction and design should be approached in a long-term fashion.
    "It is difficult to say at this point what the impact of the facility might be on the community and the local economy," Williams said. "That will be determined by the desires of county and what they want it to be used for. It will be a multifaceted facility that is there for the community good."
    Williams feels the arena could mark the beginning of a new era of "lifestyle" type development in the county.
    "It is a new concept for this area that can have a lot of positive implications," Williams. "Hopefully the community can 'build' off of it in such a way that it becomes a cornerstone of sorts in helping mold what the future might look like."
    Local business owner, Anthony Waters, has been part of the group of horse enthusiasts who began consulting with the county several years ago about the development of the agricultural arena. Waters is very excited about the economic impact that a facility of this nature can have.
    "I have seen these type of facilities develop over the years in places such as Atlanta, and Greenville and Aiken, South Carolina," Waters said. "They can be a magnet to bring people to Statesboro for horse shows, cattle shows, any number of things"
    "A nice, well run facility can have a tremendous impact," he said. "All you have to do is go to Aiken, South Carolina to see what is has done for that town."
    Waters said he is pleased that the county has entered into a consultative relationship with SMG.
    "To have a company with the experience of SMG guiding the design and construction of this project was very smart, I think," Waters said.
    Couch said he has not yet entered into an agreement with a private sector firm to manage the day-to-day operations of the arena when it opens, but he made it clear that he has more confidence in the private sector operating the facility than the public.    
    "I don't want the operation and functioning of the arena to become a burden on the taxpayer," he said. "Conventional wisdom is if we are going to operate this facility to its maximum potential there ought to be a private sector component to that management."
    "The job of the county should be to keep the capital asset (arena) upgraded and functional," Couch said. "An experienced facilities management company can keep it booked and operational. At that point, the risk to the community is limited."
    Many local residents may remember several years ago approving the current special local option sales tax (SPLOST) with the promise that an agricultural arena and conference center would be constructed with a part of the tax proceeds.
    Couch said in 2005, the firm of Wilbur Smith and Associates performed an assessment of the agricultural arena and conference center for the county.  The firm's findings suggested that the conference center would not be able to sustain itself without taxpayer subsidy. However, it was felt that the agricultural arena could. Couch said for that reason, the county decided to pursue the agricultural arena alone.
    Couch said by early spring, the county will have a much better idea of what the building is going to look like, particularly the initial phase.
    "Bottom line is the first phase of the project we want to get good arena, good practice area facility, good parking and water sewer hookups for RV's campers and things," Couch said. "We only have 63 acres to work with and it is going to be a tight fit."
    "I envision at this point, if everything goes smoothly, perhaps about a two year time frame for completion of the arena," he said. "We want to get as close as we can to the original concept absent of the conference center."