OC Fair board approves rent hike for boarders and trainers at its equestrian center – Orange County Register

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After agreeing earlier this year to make its equestrian center in Costa Mesa more widely open to the public, the OC Fair & Event Center’s board approved a rent hike Thursday, March 28, that some boarders and trainers said will mean they will have to find a more affordable place to keep their horses or sell their animals.

A 12-by-12-foot stall has been costing boarders $644 a month for their horse, and a 12-by-24 foot stall was priced at $1,023 a month. Thursday’s decision to increase rents will ultimately have boarders and trainers paying $1,130 for a 12-by-12-foot stall, and $1,795 for the larger size, though the increase will be phased in.

Officials for the fairgrounds said it costs from $1,103 to $1,503 a month to maintain the 7.5 acre equestrian center’s 100 horse stalls, depending on their size. In order to keep the facility open, rent increases are necessary, they said.

With the new prices, equestrians complained the center will become one of the most expensive facilities open to the public in the county. Staffers for the OC Fair & Event Center included some of the pricing found around the region in their report to the board, including for the San Juan Equestrian Center, which charges $910 a month for a 12-by-12-foot stall, and the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center, which charges $861 for a stall of that same size.

Gibran Stout, who runs the OC Vaulting nonprofit out of the equestrian center, said with this rent hike, she will have no choice but to look for a more affordable place to take her horses and her program.

“The thing is, the increases will be unaffordable for the majority of the clientele that I have,” Ashley Danielson, owner of All About Horses OC, said, adding that she hosts free programs for inner city kids on top of her training. “It’s really hard to to make the numbers work, but we try because we want to make horseplay affordable for everybody and draw the community in.”

Citing the high operation costs and insufficient revenue coming in, the fair board had put out a call in early December for proposals for a private operator that would be responsible for maintaining the equestrian center. If an operator was not found, the fair board warned at the time that the equestrian center would be closed.

But then, at the beginning of the year, the fair board switched gears and supported a new model for the equestrian center that would focus more on free and low-cost educational and recreational programming that officials said would be more accessible to the public. The new plan is to get the equestrian facility running more like the fairgrounds’ Centennial Farm and other public spaces, stepping away from solely renting to private businesses and horse owners, fairgrounds leaders have said.

But first, the fairgrounds leadership is addressing the cost of operations, officials said.

Some boarders and trainers told board members at Thursday’s meeting that they suspect the increase is a tactic to price equestrians out and make room for getting rid of the facility completely.

“I can certainly understand them, but I want to assure everybody that’s not the case,” Michele Richards, CEO of the OC Fair & Events Center, said. “The direction from the board was to assess what are our costs for running a boarding and training facility. It was about making sure that the rates we charged covered the expenses that we had.”

Richards said it’s a lot more expensive to run an equestrian center on state land because of the contracting and rate wage rules. Contractors, she said, are required by the state to pay a prevailing wage, and the OC Fair & Events Center is responsible for other expenses under state law.

Equestrians won’t only have their rent increased. Trailer parking will increase from $138 to $184 a month. Storage room fees will go up from $358 to $476 a month. Trainers will also be charged an additional $400 a month for use of the facility for their lessons and other activities.

“None of these other places charge anybody any type of fee to have their onsite training business there because they are already paying to be there,” said Danielson, who said she was a resident trainer in Huntington Beach for five years before moving her horses to the fairgrounds.

Boarders argued the fairgrounds entered into an expensive two-year contract for the maintenance and cleaning of the facility that is driving up its costs from what other equestrian centers have to pay.

“It’s their opinion that the contractor is charging too much. But again, going back to state contracting, we put that bid out on the market, notified lots of potential bidders for the contract, there was one bid, and that contractor ended up hiring all of the the same workers that were there before,” Richards said. “It’s the same exact crew. I actually am rather offended when they say hire a qualified operator. You can’t find a more qualified operator.”

Board member Tanya Bilezikjian said while the state-owned facility has to deal with the costs that come with abiding by prevailing wages and contract rules, she voted against the increase after pointing to possible ways that the center could cut costs, such as by altering the contract to bring some maintenance duties in-house.

As part of the board’s new vision, one half of the newly named Community Equine Center will be reserved for private boarding, and the other half, including two arenas, will be for running public programs, such as equine therapy, school tours and horse shows. Richards said the board plans on leasing horses for the public programs, but it is not yet clear from where.

Boarders will have access to a large arena and smaller arenas, as well as other parts of the center when not being used for public programming, officials said.

“I’ve been so privileged in my career here at the OC Fair & Events Center to be involved with incredible community programs like Heroes Hall, Centennial Farm, Imaginology. I see this as the next iteration to be able to provide this incredible community benefit to everyone in Orange County, not just people who are taking riding lessons,” Richards said. “So they can learn about these incredible animals and benefit from interacting with them. I really try to stay very focused on that vision and what that center could be, and how many people are going to be helped by it.”

Prices are set to increase in three increments starting June 15 with a 45% increase, then Oct. 1 by 10% and an additional 10% hike on Jan. 1.

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