Horsemen's group fires up fundraising efforts to save Sacramento facility

01/10/2013 12:00 AM

01/10/2013 11:17 AM

Just across the creek from the 15th green at the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex's Arcade Creek course and blocks from the Watt Avenue light-rail station, horses rest in a big red barn at the only equestrian facility on city property.

Sacramento County Sheriff's Search and Rescue trains its horses on this plot of land just off Interstate 80. Youth programs cater to Del Paso Heights teens.

The Sacramento Horsemen's Association has provided local horse owners this place for more than half a century. But the organization has set a goal of raising $50,000 by April 1 to avoid losing the facility, according to its president.

Michael Harbison, the newly appointed SHA president, said the money is needed to pay two years of missed rent payments to the city of Sacramento and would allow the organization to update its facilities.

The City Council began leasing the land in Del Paso Regional Park to the association in 1946. Today, SHA members can use the equestrian center – 14 acres of land with a barn, two horse arenas and access to Arcade Creek trails along the freeway – for an annual fee.

City officials say recent financial hardships have kept the horsemen's group from meeting the terms of its lease.

Officials said the downward spiral was triggered in summer 2011 by an equine virus that forced the horsemen's association to cancel fundraising events and shows.

Attendance at subsequent events dwindled. Harbison said rising hay prices put a strain on horse owners, and the association's membership declined about 50 percent, to about 300 members.

SHA stopped making monthly rent payments to the city more than two years ago and is now more than $15,000 behind, according to city parks and recreation administrative manager Lori Harder.

"This is like a gift of property. We can't go into the future with this situation," Harder said.

She said the city warned the association it would seek to open the land to a competitive bidding process for other nonprofits if SHA could not demonstrate financial responsibility by the end of its current lease agreement April 30.

The city gave the organization four months, and SHA is responding with an ambitious fundraising campaign.

"We want to open our accounts to show we are a changed organization," Harbison said. "We don't want to be bad tenants."

The $50,000 goal represents an effort to not only pay back forgiven debt by the time its current lease ends, but also finance facility upgrades, including a roof over equestrian arenas, Harbison said.

"I'm trying to lead the charge to get new blood and new excitement in there," he said.

For its members and the organizations that use its facilities, the association is central to the region's historic horse community. Its facilities near Del Paso Park stand on city-owned land where James Ben Ali Haggin bred racing horses in the 19th century, and its location near Watt Avenue and Interstate 80 is convenient for local horse owners.

"It's sort of the headquarters for the community," said Tiffany Oreglia, whose Horses, Hope & Healing non-profit teaches youth to care for horses. "It's pivotal for so many people who don't have another place to go."

Oreglia said Horses, Hope & Healing rents stables in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood three miles from the SHA facilities.

"People especially in the north part of the city would have to drive a lot farther to get to a facility," said Dave Toland, a former captain of Sacramento County Sheriff's Search and Rescue, which uses SHA facilities for its training.

All county search and rescue volunteers are SHA members, Toland said. Without SHA access, the search and rescue team would have to rent its own facility, he said.

Anyone with an SHA annual membership, ranging from $68 for students to $95 for families, can use the facilities.

"Anybody can come here, not just show people," said Michele Coble, who was riding her horse, Town and Country, at the SHA on a recent afternoon. "It accommodates everybody."

The association will launch its fundraising campaign Monday with a $10-per-person dinner at its clubhouse, 3200 Longview Drive.

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