SOUTH JORDAN — As a little girl, Kristina Chen would watch horses thunder down the race track at the Salt Lake County Equestrian Park.
It was where she learned to ride — before she became a competitive barrel racer and a horseback riding teacher. But as Chen led Bailey, her chestnut barrel-horse-in-training to the arena Monday, she worried for the future of her hobby and Utah's entire equestrian community.
That's because Salt Lake County officials are questioning whether the equestrian park is worth its $1 million per year cost to taxpayers. And with up to $4.5 million in maintenance needed over the next five years, county officials are exploring whether to downsize the 120-acre park or shut it down altogether.
"(That) would be absolutely tragic. There's nothing else like it in the state, and there's no replacing it," Chen said. "Horse owners are so incredibly passionate about what we do, so closing it down would be taking a part of me and a part of all the people who use it. It would be a huge loss to the horse community."
And Chen isn't alone. Sheri Young, president of the Utah Barrel Racing Association, has started a petition to ensure the park's race track, arenas, fields and stalls stay open.
As of Monday, Young said roughly 600 people had signed the petition, and she expects that will soon increase to 1,000.
"This affects everyone. It would be devastating to all of us," said 15-year-old horseback rider Kayla Dixon, of Sandy. She said the South Jordan equestrian park is where she competed in her very first show.
Built more than 40 years ago, no other equestrian park in Utah offers a race track, boarding, polo and jumper fields, and long-term boarding.
But County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton questioned whether funding the center is the best use of the land and taxpayer dollars.
"One-million dollars a year is a lot of money to spend on very small group of people," said Newton, indicating that of the 290 stalls for long-term boarding, only 123 board their horses there, with 20 racers using 80 stalls.
"It begs the question: Is this the role of government to be subsidizing everyone's recreation activities?" she said.
Tracey Milne, who has been boarding her horses at the equestrian park for 15 years, said the county isn't considering the entire scope of community members the park actually serves.
"It doesn't just support one discipline," Milne said as she watched her chestnut race horse, Katniss, munching hay in her stall. "It supports 4-H, riding clubs, reining, cutting, jumping, showing. It's not just the boarders that use this facility; it's people who haul from all over the state to compete."
Groups that use the equestrian center throughout the year include the Intermountain Kennel Association, Utah Paint Horse Association, Utah All Breed Association, Utah Hunter Jumper Association, Utah Arabian Horse Club and the Utah Dressage Society. Some riding groups also use the arenas weekly, sometimes nightly.
"This would impact clubs and organizations who’ve been riding together, some for over 50 years," Young said. "This would impact thousands of people who depend on the horse industry for not only income, but also a way of life."
But Newton said the park is supposed to turn a profit or at least pay for itself.
The center operates at $2 million a year, but revenue generated by events and boarders only pays for half of its operating budget, according to Dan Hayes, general manager of SMG Salt Lake, the management company that oversees the park's operations.
"If we don't have other options, we need to start making plans now for other things rather than keep going down this path," Newton said.
In March or April, the County Council will consider its options, said Martin Jensen, parks and recreation director. To fulfill the council's request, the community service department is studying four scenarios to make the South Jordan property more financially feasible:
• Maintain the equestrian park as is.
• Reduce the park's services, including the possible elimination of the race track, the polo field, or long-term boarding.
• Fund improvements to the park and expand services to make the facility more competitive in the regional equestrian event business.
• Close the park and repurpose the land into a regional park.
Jensen said if the council decides to shut down the park, he doesn't know when its doors would actually close.
"The decision hasn't been made," he said. "Right now, we're doing our due diligence to be good stewards of the resources and land we've been given."
Young said she hopes county leaders realize the park could become more profitable if they fund improvements, like RV parking and hookups, to make it more appealing to regional and national horse events.
"We feel like our passion is not being taken seriously," Chen said. "I understand they're looking at it like a business, but it's really more than that. Taking this away from future generations would be a huge mistake."