Solvency in 2005 sought by Penrose Equestrian Center

       Bill Walters is trying to do what's never been done before.
       The second-year general manager of the Penrose Equestrian Center is trying to get the county-owned facility out of the red.
       “In 30 years, this place has never had an operating profit,” Walters said in an interview with the Westside Pioneer. “We're focused on putting ourselves in that position.”
       The 156-acre grounds south of West Rio Grande Street, between Eighth and 21st streets, include the 6,000-seat outdoor stadium, a 36,000-square-foot indoor arena, three smaller indoor buildings (used for horse warm-up or smaller events), boarding stables and camping facilities for event participants.
       The two main businesses are events at the stadium and arena venues and boarding horses in the stables, Walters said.
       The impetus for financial prudence stems from the Board of El Paso County Commissioners, which has provided a $158,515 subsidy to the center each of the past two years. However, starting Jan. 1, 2005, “We're on our own,” Walters said.
       Steps already taken have involved reducing expenses. “We've done a bunch of work in that direction,” he said. “Raising revenues - that's more tricky.”
       In the future, money-making plans he's looking at include more events at the venues, as well as expansions of the horse-boarding barns, the indoor arena and the 52-hook-up camping area to increase overall business marketability.
        Also being examined is the center's property south of Bear Creek. Containing roughly half the center's acreage, the open land is currently being used only for part of the lightly used horseback-riding cross-country course. “We're looking at putting power and water south of the creek,” Walters said. “The question is, how do we leverage more of the facility and still be good neighbors?”
       The effort to lure events is ongoing - for instance, this is the first year the Scottish Highland Games will be at Penrose Stadium - while expansion ideas are still being weighed, because of the uncertainty about how soon (or if) the upfront costs could be recouped.
       “It's kind of a chicken-and-egg thing,” Walters said.
       Currently, the boarding barns are at capacity, with 70 horses, Walters said. But a major expansion would be expensive. There's also the issue of competition with the many other horse-boarders in the region. Penrose can offer plenty of trails, but not large amounts of pasture space, he said.
       The arena expansion being considered would provide attached restrooms, a meeting room and vendor space.
        As for camping, recent upgrades to the center's water pressure and electrical capabilities make it possible to add sites, if needed. “Some days we could use 300,” he said, recalling how, at events such as Little Britches or Team Roping, competitors camp wherever they can find a spot - with or without services.
       Walters is optimistic despite Penrose Equestrian Center's discouraging financial history. “Last year we cut losses substantially from 2002,” he said. “We're taking the position that we can present a budget at the end of July (for 2005) that shows us breaking even.”
       Technically speaking, Walters is the “interim” general manager for the center. He had retired from a banking career in 2001 and was a volunteer member of the El Paso County Parks Board when the previous manager left in 2002, at least partially in protest over the commissioners' subsidy elimination.
       Needing someone to fill in, the board looked to Walters and his financial background. He was a good candidate as well, he said dryly, “since I didn't have a real day job.”
       The main plusses for the Equestrian Center are its proximity to the downtown as well as to open-space land and trails, a respected riding surface (“I've been told we have excellent footing”), 340 high-quality show stalls for event participants to house their horses and, overall, “a facility that is premier in the Front Range and perhaps the West,” Walters said.
        The indoor arena is also quite versatile, transforming back and forth this winter from barrel racing competitions to home shows.
       Working against Penrose is the reality that it must compete for events against facilities that are primarily government-subsidized. “It's so hard to compete, price-wise,” he said.
       The site was formerly used for gold milling until 1947 and as a landfill from 1950 to the early '70s.
        The equestrian operation started there in 1973, when an agreement was reached allowing the Broadmoor to move Penrose Stadium - originally built by Spencer Penrose in 1939 - from its original site south of Lake Broadmoor. The Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo was held at the stadium from 1974 until 2001, when it moved to the World Arena.
        Top country-music stars, such as Randy Travis and the Judds, have performed in the past at the 6,000-seat outdoor stadium, but nowadays such performers tend to prefer indoor venues, because of the capability of bigger crowds, climate control, better sound and light shows, Walters noted.
       This year the stadium is scheduled for a total of nine events, five by itself. The other four will be in combination with the indoor arena or the facility as a whole.
       “In our mind our stadium is under-utilized,” Walters said. He stressed that the building is in good shape and does not need any major upgrade.
       Billing events alone does not ensure big profits. Walters estimated that 80 percent of the Equestrian Center's shows this year are not big enough attractions to allow tickets to be sold to them (thus ensuring their profitability).
        Still, he thinks consideration should be given to the positive impact Penrose events have on the local economy, whether free or not. As an example, he pointed out that Little Britches, which maintains its national office at Penrose, holds its one-week annual finals event in late July. “There are about 2,000 people here,” he said. “There's a huge economic impact.”
        He is hopeful county commissioners will take such facts into consideration, should the Equestrian Center fall short of his expectations and fail to make the break-even goal for 2005. However, almost succeeding is not what he's aiming for.
       “We're looking at everything we can to break 30 years of red ink,” Walters said.

Westside Pioneer Article