News: CJ Exclusives

Golden LEAF Rides New Horse

Gaston-based equestrian center seeks foundation help for economic development

RALEIGH – After funding the Carolina Horse Park Foundation for three consecutive years, Golden LEAF has found another equestrian organization to support.

Last November the Golden Long-term Economic Advancement Foundation board deferred a request for the Piedmont Equestrian Park and Conference Center, based in Gaston County, for $250,000 to help buy land in Cherryville. The equestrian center is a nonprofit organization that was set up by the county and city to help attract economic development. According to Golden LEAF’s meeting minutes March 10, the project was deferred until staff could discuss other options with the group.

While the facilities are permitted in the foundation’s articles of incorporation, board members prefer not to fund buildings and infrastructure projects. So instead of granting money for the land purchase, Golden LEAF awarded $150,000 to the equestrian center to extend a water and sewer system to the land, and to help market the park. The project has not yet begun and no money has been disbursed.

Golden LEAF is a nonprofit organization set up by the General Assembly in 1999 to handle $2.3 billion in proceeds from the national tobacco settlement.

Despite Golden LEAF’s denial to help fund the land purchase, the Piedmont Center was able to acquire about 300 acres for $900,000, with $300,000 from the City of Cherryville, and a promise of one-third of the travel and tourism (hotel and motel) sales tax from Gaston County for the next eight years.

The idea for a publicly owned equestrian center was pushed by civic leaders and horse aficionados in 2001, who argued that the project would boost travel, tourism, and economic development for the area. City- and county-elected officials embraced the idea the following year, after spending $15,000 to study its viability. Cherryville, which is tucked in the northwest corner of Gaston County, in recent years has seen several mills close, as well as a Carolina Freight Carriers terminal.

“We’ve lost everything, just everything,” said Greg Cox, chairman of the Piedmont Equestrian Center Authority and a former Gaston County commissioner.

Cherryville has an economic development disadvantage because of its remote location, Cox said. He said he hoped that the draw of the equestrian park would eventually convince the Department of Transportation to extend a four-lane highway to the area.

Estimates to build the entire project have run as high as $11.2 million, and some local news reports said the authority had hired a lobbyist to lure federal financial help, which Cox denied.

“We talked about a lobbyist, and got the pricing for a lobbyist,” he said, “but that is awful expensive stuff.”

Cox said some private money has been raised, but the effort has been slow going, as the authority has yet to find enough investors. “We would much rather go through the private sector by bringing in sponsors,” Cox said. “We need to have the master plan completed so we can show them.”

The slow development of the project has made local officials apprehensive. The Shelby Star reported in October 2002 that Gaston County commissioners “want to be extra careful about money they spend on the arena.”

“Guess who’s going to get accused or squandering this money if this thing flops?” asked Commissioner Donnie Loftis at the time. “Everybody on this board.”

Recently the plans have become more modest, scaled back to build an equestrian center that would cost an estimated $2.5 million to $3 million, which would form the basis for the larger, more elaborate project to be built over time.

Both Cox and the equestrian center’s project coordinator, Melissa Summer, have said they will go after whatever source of money they can find, public or private. One step they took was to invite the town of Waco into the partnership with Cherryville and Gaston County, which Cox said could help the Piedmont Center with more grants.

Waco has a population of about 300, and lies just beyond the Cleveland County line. Cox said the town, because of its location, would be eligible to apply for grants that the other two governments would not be eligible for. Such pots of money would include certain types of rural economic development grants and agricultural grants.

“Once it came out that we were studying this, the mayor of Waco (Horace Lutz) was interested,” Cox said. “Then we approached (him) and asked if they’d be interested (in joining the authority).”

Gaston County and Cherryville officials allowed Waco into the mix with a $5,000 investment. The little town then became the applicant on behalf of the Piedmont Equestrian Center for the grant from Golden LEAF, in order to help it purchase land.

When the Golden LEAF board met in November 2003 to consider applications for its annual grant cycle, Senior Vice President Mark Sorrells recommended to deny the request. After subsequent discussion, according to meeting minutes, board members decided “to defer the proposal pending further investigation by staff.”

Golden LEAF President Valeria Lee, while acknowledging a request from Carolina Journal for documents for this story, did not answer e-mailed questions about the grant.

Golden LEAF considered a revised request from Waco in March 2004, since “the project was deferred until staff could discuss options other than land acquisition with project leaders.” Waco still asked for $250,000, only this time for a water and sewer system, architectural fees, and a marketing plan. Golden LEAF granted the town $150,000.

Golden LEAF’s original grant to the Carolina Horse Park Foundation in Hoke County followed a similar pattern. That group asked for $300,000 in 2001 to build a horse barn, but settled for $200,000 to offset operating expenses. Golden LEAF gave that horse park $50,000 each in 2002 and 2003 as well.

Some political leaders have questioned Golden LEAF’s judgment, and the political influence wielded over it.

“I don’t think that was the intention of the (tobacco) settlement money,” said then-House Minority Leader Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, in 2002. “This is not tax money. When the money was arranged by consent order, I thought it was for the cost of Medicaid and the benefit of farmers and distressed workers.”

Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal. Contact him at [email protected]