Supporters plea for arena

Published 11:59 pm Monday, January 12, 2009

Supporters of the Covington Center Arena filled the county commission chambers Monday morning to speak in support of the facility.

In December, commissioners said they were considering leasing the facility in an effort to cut nearly $200,000 in county expenses. The need to cut expenses became more serious last week when the county lost its federal inmate housing contract, worth about $324,000 per year in revenue for the county and sheriff’s office.

Arena supporters, who held a three-hour meeting attended by more than 100 people Friday night to prepare for their presentation to the commissioners, asked that the county delay for at least a year any decision to change the way the arena operates.

“We respectfully request you postpone any decision on closing or leasing the arena for one year,” Becky Courson said. “The support by the commission as a whole is crucial to maintain the present show bookings as well as solicit new contracts.

Courson, an Andalusia resident who said she spoke on behalf of 39 businesses in the city and county, cited an impact study by Auburn University that stated horses are a $2.4 billion industry in Alabama. Approximately $30 million was spent at horse shows in the state in 2005, according to the study. That study calculated the impact to Andalusia of a three-day Arabian horse show in Andalusia at $77,000.

“This is real money being spent in the local community typically over a three to five day period,” she said, adding that the money is spent in local motels, restaurants, retail establishments, gas stations and other businesses.

Courson also recommended that the county explore hiring an equine management firm to provide an assessment study and help determine the feasibility of attracting more shows to the local facility.

Dennis Moore of Opp, who is a director of the Alabama High School Rodeo Association, asked commissioners to “think real hard” before taking any action.

He said AHSRA events bring about 90 students and their families to Andalusia more than once each year.

Paris Wixon of Hope Hull, also the owner of American Apparel in Opp, told commissioners she wants to help.

“I spend a lot of time down here,” she said, adding that she is the director of the Alabama Quarter Horse Association and a national director of the American Quarter Horse Association and is “partially responsible for getting shows down to this facility.”

“We have booked and plan to continue to book our shows here,” she said. “We had three shows here in 2008, with over 1,000 entries. You can count on three people with each entry.”

She also had high praise for Covington Center Arena manager Tony Wells.

“As someone who has traveled to shows all over the U.S, I can say Mr. Wells has done a fabulous job of welcoming us, making us feel at home,” she said. “I’ve been to facilities that were bigger and nicer, but left with a bad taste because we weren’t treated well.”

Bill Godwin drew applause and a loud “amen” when he asked commissioners to continue operations of the arena.

Godwin suggested that commissioners appoint an advisory board for the arena and charge them with making recommendations for use of the facility and fees to be charged for events.

“One thing the advisory board could say is what services the arena provides when someone rents or leases it. The needs for every event are not same,” he said.

Godwin also recommended that the commission consider a contract with an arena manager with incentives based on revenues.

“The fees for use must be increased,” Godwin said. “Costs are going up every year.”

Commissioners all said they support the facility.

Commissioner David Ellis said, “Nobody is against the arena.”

But the financial problems faced at the arena are problems the county faces in every department, Ellis said.

“Tony’s character has never been questioned,” he said. “These are tough times and we’re trying to survive.”

Commissioner Harold Elmore said the county will “work toward keeping the thing going.”

“We’ve got hard decisions to make,” Elmore said.

Commissioner Carl Turman said, “My desire and determination is to see the Arena open. You think Mr. (Tony) Wells has an easy job, go out there and follow him around when he’s got a show.”

Turman said when the arena was built, “it was not for us to be in the situation we’re in today. It was to be an enhancement to the community. We need your help, your support. And we need your prayers.”

Commission Chairman Lynn Sasser said, “Let me say this. Let the commission consider these things brought before us at this time.”

The chairman said if people of the county stand together, solutions can be reached.

“United we stand, divided we fall,” he said.

“Forget back-stabbing, forget tale-toting and unite,” Sasser said. “‘Negatory-ism’ is not the answer and I’ll stand on it.”