Oklahoma City officials look to tax increase to secure city's horse show industry

Sunday, December 12th 2004, 3:37 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ If a year's worth of training and practice pay off, Kylan Campbell brings his three daughters to Oklahoma City every year.

His daughters, ages 17, 14 and 10, all barrel race competitively and were part of the World Championship Barrel Racing finals this past week in Oklahoma City.

The Campbell family travels to Oklahoma City from Jasper, Ark., for the chance to guide their horses around three barrels and then sprint back to the starting gate for the best time, usually under 16 seconds.

Their efforts in the races, some that yield winning prizes of more than $100,000, get them exposed to college scouts recruiting for rodeo programs in addition to the money.

``This is about the best one to come to in a year,'' said Kylan Campbell as he relaxes on a hay bale waiting for his daughters' races to start.

City officials estimate that the 15 major horse shows in Oklahoma City bring in nearly $180 million a year to the city's economy.

But with aging facilities and an arena that was built more than 20 years ago, officials say renovations are needed to keep Oklahoma City the destination for large-scale horse competitions that attract competitors from around the world.

New facilities in Las Vegas, Fort Worth, Texas, and Tulsa could eclipse Oklahoma City in the next few years, said Tim O'Toole, president and general manager of State Fair Park.

Earlier this month, members of the governing board of the Federation Equestre Internationale's World Reining Master Finals voted to accept a contract to hold the 2006 show in Las Vegas.

``We have significant contract renewals coming up,'' O'Toole said. ``A lot of people are saying to us 'We'd love to stay and negotiate, but we need to know what you're going to do about your facilities.'''

On the ballot Tuesday is a hotel and motel room tax that would raise nearly $4.5 million to pay for upgrades to the arena and stables at State Fair Park. The tax would increase Oklahoma City's room tax from 2 percent to 5.5 percent, which is about average among cities with the tax.

``I want people to get a lump in their throat when they come to compete here,'' said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. ``We need to have a facility that reflects the level of competition.

``There are some people, even outside the United States, who work everyday with the goal of getting to Oklahoma City.''

Vincenzo Liguori and his family have spent the last two weeks in Oklahoma City competing in horse shows. Early last week they milled around the horse stables and the arena dressed in Wrangler jeans, Carhartt jackets and cowboy boots.

``We've been here for the reining finals, went to Dallas for the shopping and now we're back for the barrel racing,'' said Liguori, of Milan, Italy.

His 13-year-old son, Gerry, a three-time European barrel racing champion, was expected to compete later in the week.

``It's much different here than Italy,'' Liguori said. ``The barrel racing is really big...it's good.''

Despite dated facilities, Oklahoma City is centrally located and competitors, who are usually hauling 10-foot trailers with horses, can easily get on the grounds. It's a plus not to have to navigate city traffic or tight streets. Parking is close by and the stalls are attached to the arena.

``We've been coming here 19 years,'' said Pat Hutter, the secretary and treasurer of the Barrel Racing Futurity of America, Inc. ``Sure you can always use improvement, but with a lot of other facilities, the stalls aren't so handy.''

Horse shows are an attractive option for cities looking to boast tourism dollars. The competitions usually last at least a week and competitors hardly travel alone, meaning families dining out or staying in a motel spend more, said Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.

That may be why other cities are looking for a piece of Oklahoma City's horse show trade, which has been a staple in city for nearly two decades.

After updating the arena in Tulsa, the city was able to get a three-year contract to host the U.S. National Arabian and Half-Arabian Championship, which begins in 2008. The show had alternated between Albuquerque, N.M., and Louisville, Ky., since 1974.

Tulsa has spent nearly $30 million in the past five years on its arena and fairgrounds. Another $40 million will go toward improvements as part of a bond issue.

Officials with Expo Square and the Tulsa Convention and Visitors Bureau couldn't be for comment.

``They are a big threat with the recent expansion,'' Williams said. ``They are very significant competition. If the tax fails we can only put Band-Aids on our facilities. Once we begin losing them (horse shows), it becomes a spiraling effect. Lose one or two and that becomes what other shows look it. It's a domino effect.''