Bakas Equestrian Center, which has offered horse-riding therapy for disabled children and adults for nearly 30 years, is expected to have a new home by the end of this year.
In fact, the center will be replaced by two facilities under a plan unanimously approved by the Hillsborough County Commission on Jan. 11.
Tom Pepin, a beer distributor and philanthropist, approached the county with a proposal to replace the existing facility in western Hillsborough with two similar facilities on county-owned lands.
Under the approved plan, the 23-acre equestrian center property, at 11510 Whisper Laker Trail in Tampa, will move 2 miles from its current location to a 17-acre site at Northwest Equestrian Park in Odessa. Located on South Mobley Road, the park spans 600 acres and has 6 miles of horse trails.
A second riding center, of 10 acres to 12 acres, also will be built at Sydney Dover Trails in Dover, where there are about 250 acres available for good riding. That center is expected to serve residents in the eastern and central part of the county.
The commissioners’ approval now allows county staffers to begin negotiating terms of a final sale, with the project’s timeline for completion slated for the end of this year.
Board members agreed in September to put the county-owned park and its facilities up to bid, but only if Pepin pledged to build two new equestrian centers where the Bakas center could relocate at no cost to the county. The county, however, will be responsible for ongoing operating costs, such as staffing and maintenance.
Pepin’s approved proposal featured two bids—valued at $1.45 million and $1.97 million, respectively.
The first bid—the price Pepin originally was willing to spend on the project—calls for building the two facilities to match the same specs “like for like” as the Bakas site, plus a $200,000 endowment for capital costs and other operating expenses.
The second, more costly bid, includes various site upgrades and amenities at both sites desired by the county and Bakas’ Horses for Handicapped board members. Among them are competition-size arenas that measure more than 100 feet-by-200 feet, to accommodate more users and enhance fundraising opportunities. The current ring at Bakas measures 60 feet-by-120 feet.
The proposal received the general endorsement of Bakas’ Horses for Handicapped program, which noted on its website that “this would allow us to expand our program to both sides of the county.”
Therapy riding programs, such as the one at Bakas, are credited with helping people with disabilities develop balance and coordination, and to gain confidence.
However, the proposed changes drew mixed reviews during the commission’s public comment period, during which several speakers disapproved of the conversion of county-owned parklands to private property.
Kent Bailey, who chairs Tampa Bay’s Sierra Club chapter, claimed the proposed deal is undervalued as it “returns less than $2 million to the county’s taxpayers for a property that was purchased in 2001 for $3 million.”
“(Pepin) is a fine man,” Bailey said, “but what does that have to do with your faithful discharge of the fiduciary responsibilities as good stewards of the taxpayers of this community.
“No one is entitled to preferential treatment here, regardless of their standing in the community,” he added.
Tampa resident Christopher Gleason expressed similar sentiments to commissioners, saying the land deal gives “unfair advantage to somebody based on their standing in the community and political connections.”
Tampa resident Karen Michalski also directly questioned commissioners, by saying “Why is the public county park with a working value added successful equestrian therapy center being sold to an individual? Just because (Pepin) has the opportunity?”
Others, meanwhile, voiced concerns about site naming rights, and questioned whether the county is willing to adequately staff and handle ongoing operating expenses at two separate sites.
Jolie Smith, a Land O’ Lakes resident whose two daughters benefit from Bakas, explained she didn’t want to see the equestrian center sold, but is hopeful the deal will result in a “win-win” for the county and Bakas riders.
Smith noted: “the premise of the swap is to allow the Bakas program to grow, expand, and service more individuals with special needs.
“We’ve seen people walk, breathe and restore function. It’s an amazing program, and part of that therapy is the pristine setting where we are at,” she said.
Pepin said he plans to use the purchased Bakas tract, which abuts 67 acres he already owns, for personal use.
During a town hall meeting in November, he said he might build a few residences, but doesn’t intend to create a subdivision or commercial property.
He also said he’s willing to work with the community on certain amenities, such as larger riding arenas at both locations, in lieu of less desired features.
“My mission is the same as Bakas—it’s to help handicapped children,” Pepin said during the town hall.
Published January 31, 2018