Bulloch County commissioners hope a famous quote from the movie “Field of Dreams” will apply to the commission’s latest project, a multipurpose facility with arenas, a barn and RV hookups: “If you build it, they will come.”
Commissioners and about 250 others gathered at a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday morning at 44 Arena Blvd., between Langston Chapel Road and Highway 301 South. All seemed rather confident that the facility will draw not only equine events but something to pique every interest.
While those involved in the project that has taken more than 18 years to come to fruition call it a “premier multipurpose facility,” there is no argument that a large percentage of events held there will be equestrian related. But the center won’t be just a “horse park,” said Billy Hickman, committee chairman who has been involved in the project since its inception in 1997.
A Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum in 1998, which he said passed by 93 percent, led to the reservation of more than $6 million for the planned three-phase project: an office complex, a conference center and an arena.
Former Statesboro-Bulloch Chamber of Commerce president Peggy Chapman drew plans for the facility “on a napkin during a meeting at RJ’s,” and former Bulloch County Board of Education Chairman Al Burke initiated the donation of the land, across from Langston Chapel Middle and Elementary schools, he said.
Money spent, delays encountered
The office complex was dedicated in 2003, but the rest of the plans were put on hold due to economic challenges and difficulty in finding an architect who would stick to the county’s budget, said Bulloch County Board of Commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson.
In lieu of raising taxes during the hard times, county officials legally transferred money from the SPLOST account set aside for the project to other areas in need, such as the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office, Bulloch County EMS and the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation Department.
Studies for feasibility and other reasons for the arena project also cost money, he said.
So, with $4.5 million left available, the county needed to find a solution within budget.
Over the course of 18 years, the answer kept being no, Thompson said. Some companies had proposals reaching several million over budget.
“We could not get the price we were looking for,” he said. “We finally found an architect who would listen to us.”
That architect is Jim Ingram, who designed the Bulloch County Animal Shelter, he said.
“He drew a plan that was perfect for us,” Thompson said.
Pope Construction won the bid out of three local companies and has “guaranteed to stay under budget,” he said.
County crews are doing the site work.
The multi-use facility will have a covered performance arena with bleacher seating for 3,000, a covered practice arena, 218 stalls, grooming and bathing bays and RV hookups, with additional camping space for self-supporting camps. These will all be connected by covered walkways.
Hickman said the county’s “Stirrup Some Fun” therapeutic riding program will be moved to the site, with a separate barn and turnout area for the horses used in the program.
Interest and excitement
The groundbreaking Thursday on site drew a sizable crowd including current and former county commissioners, Chapman, Statesboro Mayor Jan Moore and a host of interested residents.
“I am amazed and thrilled at the turnout we have,” said Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch.
Hickman echoed the appreciation for the crowd and listed several possibilities for the facility.
“There will be weddings — somebody will find a reason to get married here,” he said. “There can be dances, concerts, motocross and archery events. The sky is the limit. This facility will become everything our community wants it to be.”
Young rider Elyse Blevins, 14, attended the groundbreaking with a host of others dressed in jodhpurs and riding boots. She is a student of Evermore Farm equestrian facility in Brooklet.
“We ride right down the road — and I hope we can bring our horses up here and train,” she said. “This will expose people to the horse community, and we can exchange information about horses.”
Eleanor Ellis, owner of Evermore Farm, said: “We have waited a long time, and there has been a lot of hard work from people in our community.”
The arena is expected to be completed by December, and she hopes it will be available for an upcoming regional Intercollegiate Horse Show Association event she will be hosting, she said.
Local businessman LA Waters, whose family raises and shows horses, said he expects “all kinds of events” will come to the Statesboro facility.
“We recently went to an Anderson, South Carolina, facility, and they stay booked up every weekend — car shows, horse shows, all kind of events,” he said. “It will be booked up, and I don’t think it will be an expense on taxpayers. It will bring in a lot of people to Statesboro.”
Several groups have already shown interest in the arena, said supporter Laura Muldrew, also involved in showing horses.
“People are already asking whether we can get more stalls,” she said. “They are very interested in it. We have to think of a plan for expansion to accommodate these larger national groups.
The Savannah Kennel Club, Statesboro Kiwanis Club and Appaloosa Horse Club are among numerous groups who have looked into the facility.”
“The Kiwanis Club can have its rodeo here and don’t have to worry about the rain,” Thompson said. Due to the covered walkways and arenas, “rain will not stop the show.”
Hickman said the committee for the project, formed in 1997 and reconfigured in 2016, will be seeking “major donors” for naming opportunities for the entire complex.
“This reminds me of Christmas — presents we have been hoping to open for some time,” Thompson told the crowd Thursday.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.