Tepid economy troubles Roanoke Valley Horse Show

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As with all commerce, the equestrian industry has its cycles. When the arrows point up, horse owners ride off into a brilliant sunset with broad smiles on their faces. When the arrows point down, gorgeous sunsets in the saddle turn to sleepless nights abed.


Continuing difficulties with horse cents and dollars has had wide-ranging impact. Such realities won’t be far from the thoughts of those gathering this week starting today for the Roanoke Valley Horse Show.


Held annually at Salem Civic Center since 1972 and one of the few highly rated multi-breed shows anywhere, this year’s show gets underway amid the ongoing tepid economy.


A leaner management team and revamped marketing plan is in place this year as the Roanoke Valley Horsemen’s Association positions the event for the future.


Spearheading the counterattack is the new president of the association, David Levine, who was elected last November. Under his leadership, the show management team has been reorganized. Additionally, a new advertising, fundraising and marketing strategy was put in place.


“The biggest thing is finding where we can create more income and cut expenses,” said Levine, whose past roles with the association have ranged from grounds crew volunteer to member of the board of directors.


One of the most notable moves was the elimination of the paid full-time position of executive director, last occupied by Chelsea Hartberger. Levine is now acting director of the show in addition to being president of the association. The hope is to recruit a volunteer with public relations, marketing and fundraising skills to fill the director position, but that person has yet to be found, Levine said.


Meanwhile, the duties of the former executive director have been divided between two part-time paid positions known as co-chairs on the new organizational chart. They are Stacey Wright and Liz Hinds, under whom are all the subcommittees responsible for the day to day nuts and bolts of show operations.


Continuing in roles as show managers are Peter Fenton for the saddlebred classes and Sandy Gerald for hunters and jumpers.


“I’m focusing on advertising and fundraising and being the last person listed on the chart,” Levine said.


Meanwhile, it’s business as usual under the familiar blue and white striped tents where horses are quartered. The show gets underway at 8 a.m. this morning and will be running day and night through Saturday at multiple indoor and outdoor show and schooling rings around the Civic Center grounds.


Today’s competition centers on locally-owned hunter and equitation horses, with several Southwest Virginia Hunter Jumper Association classes being contested. Throughout the week during the day, hunters and jumpers will be showing indoors in the main civic center show ring as well as outside in the Hollins and Virginia Tech rings. Daytime admission is free.


Paid admission evening competition begins at 6 p.m. nightly and runs through Saturday’s championship classes ending in the $50,000 Grand Prix of Roanoke. Saddle horses, western, harness, Arabians, barrel racers and professional and amateur jumpers will compete throughout the week.


All this is against a backdrop of both declining spectator and exhibitor attendance, a troubling trend years in the making. This year, for example, exhibitors will occupy 430 stalls, down 85 from 2013. As recently as 2007, more than 1,000 stalls were being occupied during show week.


The downturn echoes national numbers. For example, in a survey cited by equestrianprofessional.com, in 2012, the last year for which figures were available, 62.4 percent of respondents said their business was either flat or in decline. Also quoted were annual figures from the Keeneland thoroughbred sales, regarded as a leading economic barometer of the racing industry, which grossed $534 million in 2013, down from $815 million in 2007 but a slight rebound from a low of $410 million in 2012.


Closer to home, the Roanoke Times reported in May on the troubled state of the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, which was seeking public assistance in the form of a taxpayer bailout to emerge from mounting debt.


Troubles of a different sort have affected Colonial Downs in New Kent, whose season and long term future have been threatened by a dispute between the track and the nonprofit organization that represents thoroughbred owners and trainers who race there. The track has lost $1.5 million, fired 40 employees and reduced the hours of 50 more, according to a June 4 story in the Tidewater Review. Another result: Four of the eight off-track betting parlors have been shut down.


As for the Roanoke Valley Horse Show, the difficult climate has threatened the show’s primary mission as a nonprofit charitable enterprise. The Bradley Free Clinic has been the primary beneficiary of the show’s largesse over the years, but a number of other charities – all local – have shared in the proceeds.


“We have to get up to a higher level,” Levine said. “We ask so many favors of the community, the area businesses, the sponsorships, the equipment we are loaned. The payback in our opinion is what we are able to do for local charities.”


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