LUMBERTON — Although long-awaited horse stalls will soon be in place to serve equestrian shows and competitions at the Southeastern North Carolina Agricultural Events Center, one Robeson County commissioner believes it has taken too many years to happen.
Commissioner David Edge lashed out last week at Kent Yelverton, head of the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Property and Construction Division, and his boss, state Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler, charging that they have “intentionally delayed” getting the stalls constructed on site so that the Sen. Bob Martin Eastern Agricultural Center in Williamston does not lose business. Williamston is currently the No. 1 state facility for holding large multi-day and multi-state horse shows and competitions.
“They want to hurt this center … . The (state) Department of Agriculture and Troxler have royally screwed Robeson County,” Edge told The Robesonian. “County people raised money for these stalls. They (state) have had that money a long time and just sat on it … .”
Edge said that he had worked hard until about two years ago to make the arena become reality. He said he finally realized that no progress was going to be made by working with the state. Robeson County horse enthusiasts have been pushing for the establishment of a suitable facility for equestrian shows for more than 20 years.
“I couldn’t believe it when I was originally told that the state was delaying this project because they wanted to protect Williamston for political purposes, but after working on this I have come to believe it,” Edge said.
Yelverton declined to respond to the allegations made by Edge. He did defend the state’s efforts to establish the center.
“Our hope is that there is enough business for both Williamston and Lumberton. We feel that each of our four centers complement each other. There are different types of horse shows, based on such things as choice of breed or preferred location,” he said. “In establishing this facility there is a process in place that has to be followed. It has been a matter of getting money, not something political. There is no connection between Lumberton and Williamston related to this project.”
In addition to the centers in Lumberton and Williamston, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services oversees two other facilities that host equestrian shows and competitions. They are the Raleigh horse complex at the fairgrounds in Raleigh and the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center in Fletcher, Yelverton said.
More stalls and electrical hookups on site could lead to the Southeastern North Carolina Agricultural Events Center becoming the choice venue in North Carolina for many large equestrian shows and competitions. And for Lumberton and Robeson County that means big bucks.
That’s not only Edge’s opinion, but the opinion of several participants and organizers of last weekend’s All Youth Barrel Bash that showcased the riding skills of about 250 barrel racers between the ages of 19 and under from several states. The event, which was first held three years ago, was ranked as the seventh largest youth barrel racing competition in the United States, according to the event’s organizer, C.H. Kelly of Clayton.
While the Sen. Bob Martin Eastern Agricultural Center in Williamston is currently the top choice for multi-state shows among those traveling the equestrian circuit, the center just outside of Lumberton is quickly growing in popularity.
Jamie Holland, a veteran barrel racer from Wilson, said that the Southeastern center is being referred to in equestrian circles as the “mini-Williamston.”
“Williamston is a great facility, but the location isn’t good,” Holland said. “If there were more stalls here and additional electrical hookups, a lot of people would prefer to come here. The facility is perfect for shows and the location is great.”
Currently, there are 113 stalls located on the agricultural center’s property, but they are a significant distance away from the center’s pavilion. According to Yelverton, 50 of the new 100 stalls that have been paid for by both state funds and private donations are now being manufactured and should be delivered to the center within the next four to five weeks. Delivery of the other 50 stalls will follow, Yelverton said, but he could not say exactly when.
The stalls and two barns that will house them are being constructed by Driven Contractors LLC of Maxton. The $590,000 project, which began in 2012, includes $117,000 from Robeson County, as well as a city of Lumberton allocation of up to $30,000 to be used for site work and an unlimited amount for labor and equipment for the site work.
The state Horse Council and the state Horse Foundation raised more than $400,000 in donations and sponsorships. Last summer, the state legislature approved the last $165,000 needed to build the barns and stalls.
Currently, a bill is pending in the state House that will provide $750,000 for permanent seating and a public address and sound system, according to Rep. Charles Graham, one of the bill’s primary sponsors.
Graham said that once the stalls are in place, groups wishing to book multi-day horse shows can schedule events and be ensured stalls to shelter their horses.
“This will be great for the county, hotels and local businesses,” said Graham. “I hope this is just a start in the number of stalls that will be built. Hopefully there will be a potential for more in the future.”
Speaking as a promoter, Kelly said that if there were more stalls on the grounds of the Southeastern Agricultural Events Center he could book numerous big shows that would fill local hotels and boost business at local restaurants and other businesses.
“You are losing thousands and thousands of dollars that could boost the economy by not having enough stalls,” he said. “If there were 300 stalls here I could advertise nationally. But I can’t bring in more people than I can guarantee stalls. I’m pushing the limit now. You are losing large amounts of money.”
Beth Herndon, a barrel racer and real estate appraiser from Lumberton who assisted Kelly in setting up and operating last weekend’s competition, agreed.
“These people spend a lot of money,” she said. “They eat in the local restaurants, fill up local hotels, and purchase items at local stores.”
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.