- Equestrienne Carly Devine, riding Kalo during a recent OBrien horse-jumping show at Penrose Equestrian Center. The OBriens contract was recently cancelled.
Though the Penrose Equestrian Center hosts everything from monster truck spectaculars to household chemical waste collection drives, its heart has always been horses.
However, the interim general manager's recent decision to cancel a series of prestigious horse shows has rankled the producers of the shows, as well as facility advisory board members.
In April, Bill Walters unilaterally cancelled the Equestrian Center's largest event client, O'Brien Show Management, a Larkspur-based horse show company that has hosted five USA Equestrian-sanctioned horse-jumping shows every year there for 20 years.
Walters said that the eight-member advisory board voted unanimously to support his decision not to renew the contract, and described the O'Brien's as impossible to deal with, though he refused provide any details. "No matter how hard we try, we can't make them happy," he said.
Walters said that no other events have been lined up to replace the horse-jumping shows, called hunter jumpers in the equine world. The shows raised more than $70,000 annually, the equivalent of eight percent of the total revenues at the county-owned facility, and brought over $2 million into the Colorado Springs economy this year, according to the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"While five shows sounds enormous, it's not the kiss of death; it's just one small part of what goes on here," Walters said.
However, members of the Center's advisory board have since expressed concern about the facility's economic future and the leadership of Walters, a former US Bank vice president who was appointed to the $60,000 a year interim position a year ago.
Preserving Western heritage
Part of the estate of gold magnate Spencer Penrose, the Equestrian Center was bequeathed to the City of Colorado Springs in an effort to preserve the region's "Western heritage" through events like the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo.
One of a handful of urban-based equestrian facilities in the country, it was relocated from the Broadmoor in 1974 to its current location on Rio Grande Street in southeast Colorado Springs.
The city sold the facility, which currently hosts between 40 and 45 events a year, to the county in 1999.
Last year, the Board of County Commissioners voted to phase out $158,000 a year worth of funding to the Equestrian Center by 2005, though it will continue to own and administer the facility.
Carole O'Brien, who runs O'Brien Show Management with her husband Lee, says she doesn't understand Walters decision to cancel the five yearly horse shows. The O'Briens have moved the shows to the Douglas County Events Center in Castle Rock.
"No other event paid them as much as we paid," O'Brien said.
Shortly after Walters informed her of his decision, O'Brien hired attorney and former El Paso County Commissioner Duncan Bremer, who sent letters to the board and approached the Board of Commissioners to ask the county to reverse the decision.
Bremer struck out. "I told them it would jeopardize the future of Penrose," Bremer said of Walters' decision. "I thought they were making a big mistake."
Absent during events
Several board members are also now questioning Walter's decision, which they claim was rushed, and presented to them without a broader picture of its consequences.
"Our inclination was to support him as the manager," said board member Simone Windeler. "Had we had the full information, had we had both sides of the story, we would have made a different decision."
Windeler also said that when board members requested to see financial information regarding the loss of the O'Brien Show Management shows, Walters "blew them off" for several months.
In addition, several board members criticized Walters for routinely being absent during weekend events.
Board member Dan Tibbetts says they did not realize for several months after he started the job that he was not on hand for big events.
"That was news to me and most of the board," Tibbetts said. "I think that if you're running the Equestrian Center you should be there on weekend events."
Overall, Tibbetts said, he believes that Walters is doing a good job. Board member Rick O'Connell, meanwhile, said he thinks "a clear job description" for the manager position needs to be created.
Plans to stay
Tibbetts and Windeler said the board believed that, after Walters was appointed to the interim position last year, a search for a permanent replacement would be launched by the county.
However, El Paso County assistant administrator Dennis Cripps says that the arrangement allowed for Walters to serve a full year as interim general manager, with an option to renew for an additional year. Walters said he plans to stay on.
Cripps says he fully supports Walters, including his decision to cancel the O'Brien Show Management horse shows.
-- John Dicker