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County looks to move on ag arena
Project funding was first approved in 1997
W Tom Couch horse
In this Herald file photo from 2005, Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch is shown holding plans for a multi-purpose arena on the site off Langston Chapel Road. - photo by Herald File

      Bulloch County Commissioners are ready to move forward with a project voters approved years ago - providing it doesn't cost taxpayers money to operate.
      The first phase of the Bulloch County Center for Agriculture project, an office building that serves as a "one-stop shop" for farmers and others in the agriculture business, has already been built on the Langston Chapel Road site. But the construction of an arena for use in agricultural and other events has been put on the back burner for close to 14 years.
      Back then, naysayers protested the construction of a "horse" arena, as they do today. But Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch, along with all commissioners, say there never was a plan to build something that would only be used for equestrian activities.
      A group of equestrians interested in the long-awaited project resurrected conversation about the arena recently, but the misconception that the arena would be a "horse arena" is incorrect, he said.
      The proposed multipurpose arena would be used for a wide range of events, including equipment shows, trade shows, gun and knife shows, concerts, exhibitions, fresh vegetable and produce markets, and more, he said.
      Voters passed a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendum in 1997, specifically for funding the project.
      Just under $6.4 million in revenue was collected, but after expenditures for planning and pre-design work for an indoor and outdoor arena, $6.14 million remained, he said. Then, in 2009, "based on my recommendation, $2 million of the remaining 2002 SPLOST balance was transferred to other projects."
       The project was placed on hold, however, and revisited in 2005, when a second feasibility study was done. This study found a possibility of short-term negative operating deficits, "though they seemed less likely for the multi-purpose arena than the multi-purpose indoor facility" he said.

Design concept
       A design concept drafted in Nov. 2007 projected a projected capital outlay of $15 million.
       "At that time, the County abandoned further planning and design in order to consider redefining the scope of the project to more affordable levels," Couch said.
       The remaining $4.1 million should be adequate to design a multipurpose facility that suited the plans an original steering committee produced shortly after the project was suggested, he said.
       The biggest concern about the project is whether it would be self-supporting, he said. The 2005 and 2007 feasibility studies predicted a short-term operating deficit. Since the county's general funds already subsidizes the operating cost of the existing office building, ($16,000 annually), "The county simply cannot afford any more subsidies at this time," he said.

Inflated costs
      County officials also were concerned with inflated capital outlay projections, which ballooned from "$7 million for all three facilities up to $15 million just for an arena."
      This jump in proposed costs is "due in our opinion to poor advice given by various consultants who always seemed to have reason to expand the scope or costs beyond what was desired and contemplated," Couch said. "Feeling that $4.1 million is adequate to fulfill the steering committee's original concept for an arena, we would prefer to give that concept over to a trustworthy design professional and give them the charge to get the most out of available funds, after we know we can support any operating deficits."
       Couch recommends the commissioners take the $4.1 million and set it aside for the original concept; conduct an internal final assessment and develop a five-year financial operating plan which will serve as the decision-point for proceeding with final planning, design and construction; and "if needed, the Commission may ... make a firm obligation $2 million from 2007 SPLOST funds to set aside as a contingency if the $4.1 million should for any reason prove to be inadequate."
      Improvements and additions could be made later when funds are sufficient, he said.

Comissioners' take
      Bulloch County Commissioner Ray Mosley believes if voters chose to pass the referendum, something should be done.
      "I know it's been a number of years," he said. "Voters voted for it and we've got to move forward."
      He agreed that the proposed project is a multipurpose arena, not one specifically designed for equestrian events.
      "I see a lot of other events that could take place there - 4-H, farmers markets, boat and car shows."
      Bulloch County Commission Chairman Garrett Nevil supports moving on the project.
      "It can serve many purposes," he said.
      He said he has visited many similar facilities across the state.
      "I envision a covered arena with low overhead, and high marketability ... that does not have to be heated or cooled."
      He imagines an open air arena, with fans and lights that would only be used when the facility is in use. He said he would like to see ample parking with RV hookups for exhibitors, and said he could imagine campers filling the lots (at a charge per unit) for events such as bluegrass festivals.
      Gainesville has a similar arena, and Nevil said the facility can be used for circuses, rodeos, classic car shows, "a number of events." The Gainesville facility stays booked all year except Christmas and Easter, he said.
      "There will be no problem with us keeping it (the Bulloch facility) as busy as we need it."
      The revenue is possible "if it is done right" and he believes there would be no operating deficit if the arena were marketed and managed correctly, based on what he sees in Gainesville, Perry and other areas with facilities like the one proposed in Bulloch.
      "Other (officials in other counties) always emphasize the economic impact on their community," he said. "They assure us there would be no problem in booking (events)."

What people want
      Bulloch County Commissioner Robert Rushing said "if the voters voted, it has to be built."
      He was "personally against it" when he first heard of the idea, but was also against SPLOST, and "look what it has done for us," he said.
      "I'm trying to develop a new attitude. I'm not against it."
      He said he wants to ensure the facility is what people want. "If we're going to build it, we need to build it right," he said. "The one at Dublin is a failure because they don't have stalls."
      People who lease the facilities for animal shows need stalls, and exhibitors pay rent for those stalls, he said.
      Bulloch County Commissioner Anthony Simmons said it is time to take action.
      "It has been 14 years - I think we need to move forward. It may not be the version first drawn up, but we need to put it on the front burner."
      He, too, agreed that there is a misconception about the facility being built for only horse-related activities.
      "It could be used for just about anything you can think of."
       Commissioner Walter Gibson said he supports the construction of an arena, and said since voters passed the referendum and money is in the bank, it's time to act.
       "We want to be sure it will support itself," he said. "That's the reason it has been put off. If we get the right (events booked) it will be self-supporting."

Success with rodeo
      He said a rodeo held recently by the Statesboro Kiwanis Club proved that citizens will support equestrian activities as well as other events. The club sold more than 7,000 tickets to the two-night event, and turned away that many or more people when the stands were full.
      Commissioner Carolyn Etheridge is concerned about the potential cost to tax payers should the arena not be self-supporting.
      "My whole take is, if it's a need and the county will benefit, and it has support," it is a positive thing, she said. "I'd like further information about what the plan was initially and what the citizens voted on."
      She wants to see more examples of similar facilities and how their revenues handle expenses, she said.
       "I'd like to do a little more homework on my part."
      Commissioner Roy Thompson also wants to ensure that the project won't cost taxpayers.
      "I'm 110 percent for it and I'm 110 percent against it," he said. "I'm all for it if it won't have to be subsidized by the general fund."
      Thompson also attended the Kiwanis rodeo, for the sole purpose of seeing what kind of crowd it drew. As he picked through people sitting on the ground because the bleachers were full, he noted the extreme success of the event.
      He also pointed out that the misconception that the arena would be solely an equestrian facility is incorrect. "It's not about horses, and that is what (some) people are talking about."
      Having a facility where a variety of events can be held will be a boon to the community.
      "If it can be proven that it can sustain itself in this community, then I am all for it."
      The Dublin facility cost $800,000 to build. Since stalls are needed, a similar facility in Bulloch County would cost more, but not enough to consume the entire $4.1 million, he said. He feels the facility can be constructed well within the budget.
And as he noted the crowd at the recent rodeo, he said "I thought to myself, ‘look at the people who would come (to such an event) if we had a nice facility.'"
      Thompson reiterated that if the arena could be booked properly and be self-sustaining, it could be a lucrative endeavor.
      "I am for anything that would benefit Bulloch County and will bring people into Bulloch County," he said.
      Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.

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