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Future of RBCEP uncertain

“We stand in financial trouble. We’re going to have to get re-routed so we can get going.”

It was an explanation by Hodges Mayor Terry Petree that was not met with universal acceptance at last week’s special called meeting to discuss the status of Rock Bridge Canyon Equestrian Park. Park Director Mike Franklin resigned about a week and a half ago, and with his departure, the future of the establishment hangs in the balance.

Dec. 1, the Town Council of Hodges met before a packed room to discuss options in moving forward with the equestrian park. At the center of the discussion were two issues: the current financial situation of the park and the town’s loss of access to Rock Bridge Canyon.

According to CPA Don Wallace, the equestrian park is continuing to operate at a loss. The town is more than $1.2 million in debt on the park, Wallace said. In the last fiscal year, the park reported a $67K loss. Additionally, appropriation to the park from the water board cannot continue, as the water board is now paying off an SRF loan.

Although options were tossed back and forth on how to move toward making the park solvent, perhaps more problematic is the loss of the Town’s access to the canyon, which is – or has been – the central feature of the park and the draw for the majority of its visitors. Canyon property owners Danny and Deborah Avery had previously allowed the park-goers access to the canyon, but the Averys’ contract with the town dissolved upon Franklin’s resignation from the park. Deborah is Franklin’s sister, and their agreement with Hodges was contingent on Franklin’s association with the park.

“We’re done with the Town of Hodges,” Avery said.

The details surrounding Franklin’s resignation are fuzzy and a point of contention. In particular, numerous voices at Thursday’s meeting charged Petree with demoting Franklin, which led to the resignation. Petree denied a “demotion,” saying that he had only told Franklin he would no longer be in charge of any rodeos or special events. The mayor had told Franklin his intentions to hire the Isoms of Hodges for rodeo management.

Sparks began to fly Nov. 7 when the new council had voted to rework Franklin’s current salary into hourly pay, to avoid the expected national threshold increase for salaried workers. Since that time, the threshold increase legislation was put on hold – but not before the discussion between Franklin and the Town of Hodges. It was move that came with heated discussion at the meeting, which was the first for the newly-sworn-in administration.

Franklin took the opportunity to enumerate the ways in which he has supported the park out of his own pocket.

“Ever since I’ve been here, I think I have been instrumental in getting more grant money here than I’ve gotten paid,” Franklin said. “Some months when we don’t have hardly any income, I take my salary and put it right back into the equestrian park. I pay bills. I buy stuff for the camp store to sell. I take care of tore up stuff. If anything breaks, I buy it.

“So, I mean, I understand we have to look at everything, and I understand there has to be a plan made. But for me personally, I can’t do any more than what I have been doing.”

What followed was several minutes of the council trying the determine the pay breakdown between Franklin’s role as park director and his role as police chief and how to fairly represent what was previously his salary as an hourly wage. Several councilmembers were vocal about being careful not to cut Franklin’s pay in the course of setting the hourly rate.

The council at that time approved a rate of $18 an hour.

The council decided to take no action about the park until its Dec. 12 meeting to give them time to gather more information and consider all the options. One possibility is to close the park temporarily, through the least-profitable winter months, but the council admitted they would have to find out if such a closure would be in compliance with the numerous grants the park has received. Additionally, multiple horse-enthusiasts voiced their beliefs that even a short, temporary closure would cause most of the park’s visitors to permanently cross RBCEP off their lists.

“I don’t want to close it. I swear I don’t want to,” Petree said.

Hodges advocate Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, who has been a vocal and passionate supporter of the town and particularly the RBCEP, said it’s a sad state of affairs for Hodges.

“It’s really hard for me to take, as much time and effort as I have put into that project,” said Morrow, who has been a driving force behind improvements. “You would think a town such as Hodges – that is struggling to create jobs and have economic development – you would think people could put their personal feelings or things that happened in a political campaign aside … and work for the good of the future of the town. From what I’m hearing, that is simply not the case in Hodges.”

Morrow said during the election, he had personally spoken with candidates about setting personal feelings and vendettas aside and working together for the good of the town. “That was my message before the election, and that’s still my message,” he said.

Morrow said a lot of people have put in a lot of work to try to “make Hodges a town we can all be proud of. I know I have, and I know Roger Bedford did. A lot people – TVA officials, Norfolk Southern, the banks. So many people have worked so hard to help them try to have a future. For them to just throw it away – I just simply cannot understand that.”

More information will be shared as this story continues to develop.

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