Three years after a historic renovation, Folger Stable finds itself facing empty stalls in the near future as San Mateo County cancels its contract with the Bay Area Equestrian Connection.
Built in 1905, the stable and carriage house tucked away in Woodside's Wunderlich Park took about $3 million to renovate into a showpiece worthy of listing in the National Register of Historic Places. It reopened to the public in September 2010; soon after, BAEC took over the equestrian program, offering riding lessons, trail rides and horse boarding to the community.
The relationship eventually soured. The three-year contract, with an option to extend, set rent for the first year at $27,000 annually, raised to $36,000 thereafter, due by the first of the month. If not paid within five days of the due date, the county added a 5 percent fee.
The county said BAEC repeatedly paid late. The monthly rent was late more than a dozen times, and at one point was $15,000 behind, according to Interim Parks Director Jim Nantell. Monthly fees of $25 per occupied stall were late ten times.
Dan Byrum, owner of BAEC, which has provided equestrian services for more than three decades, said the situation is not cut-and-dried.
Every bill the county sent was paid in a timely manner, he told the Almanac. Some bills didn't come in; others failed to include the rent increase after the first year. BAEC had consistently paid mid- to late-month, to ensure an accurate count of stall occupancy, since October 2010 without complaint from the county, he said.
The county sees it differently.
"There's no requirement to send the bill. He's supposed to pay it," Interim Parks Director Jim Nantell said, comparing the situation to any other tenant paying rent -- the landlord doesn't send a bill first.
"He'd gotten pretty far behind for a number of months. Staff talked to him, he got up to snuff, but then almost immediately -- one month it was five days late, another month it was 20 days. You kinda feel like, look, you were way behind, you got that up to snuff but now you're not honoring the deal to get your payments in on time."
Not quite friends
Payments weren't the only issue. Both BAEC supporters and the county hinted at struggles in figuring out how to keep all the different stakeholders working in harmony out at the stable. The Friends of Huddart and Wunderlich Parks, which organized the fundraising campaign that refurbished the stable into a showpiece, as well as the county's Historical Society, have their own uses for the site, arranging nonprofit tours and educational programs on the grounds.
BAEC's lease recognized this, saying, "Tenant shall work with and provide reasonable accommodations for any non-profits running programs and conducting tours in and about the stable."
The question became, what's reasonable?
Mr. Byrum said he faced problems ranging from bathrooms left sloppy following class tours to disagreements over whether the Friends should stage programs in the carriage house rather than extending into the entranceways.
It was only after negotiations with the Friends totally broke down that the county decided to cancel BAEC's lease, Mr. Byrum said.
"It is pretty clear that (the county) wanted to create an event of default, so they had a legitimate reason to remove BAEC," Mr. Byrum told the Almanac. "All they had to do was mention that they wanted payment earlier, but instead they sent out two notices for November and December. Then all was quiet until the renewal, and they refused, stating the BAEC had been in default."
Lea Goldstein, who along with Lisa Raskin is co-president of the Friends, said they weren't privy to the details of the county's decision to not renew the lease, but their understanding was that BAEC had defaulted on the contract.
Any issues with the use of the bathrooms as well as other areas at the stable were resolved by the county, Ms. Goldstein said, following discussions with both BAEC and the Friends. The solution included allowing both groups to use the stable bathroom, and keeping a separate hot wash area for horses on the opposite side of the facility from the Friends' programs.
"The Friends look forward to working with the new contractor in a cooperative working relationship in which both groups support one another's success. The Friends believe that a horse facility and a non-profit organization serving the public can co-exist at Folger Stable," Ms. Goldstein said.
The county acknowledged the environment presents unique challenges to the stable operator. "Whoever wants to provide this service, they have to invest time in managing those relationships," Mr. Nantell said. While he understood BAEC's frustrations, he noted, "If you want to operate here, though, that's a piece you have to be willing to invest time and energy on."
It's also costly to maintain Folger Stable, keeping everything polished and beautiful, adding an expense most stable operators don't have, he said.
BAEC has many supporters. One, Denise Faleschini, pointed out that Mr. Byrum has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into making the equestrian program a success.
The Friends of the Parks are to be commended for raising funds from the community to restore an aging dilapidated park, Ms. Faleschini said, but that was money from the public. "That's me, and everyone else that lives in the county that donated to make the park safe for use again. One thing that everyone is forgetting here, is that the stakeholders in this park are nonprofit entities that operate on public funding. Dan Byrum however, invested private funds. His."
She said it appears that the county is hoping that with a new operator, the relationships will smooth out
Ms. Faleschini pointed to programs "literally bursting at the seams with public participation" in 2013 as proof of BAEC's effectiveness.
"To start all over again with a new operator is ridiculous" as well as unfair to BAEC, she said.
The county is preparing to send out a request for proposals to find a new operator, but is also considering a different business model, where a nonprofit would run the stable. Eliminating the need to turn a profit coupled with the ability to accept donations could make the stable more viable, Mr. Nantell suggested, as well as open the door to providing public services at a lower cost.
"The risk is, again, a group of people who may or may not get along," Mr. Nantell noted.
An announcement on the Folger Stable website advises everyone come ride while they can, and to stay tuned for the liquidation of nearly $250,000 in assets, including the sale of horses and equipment, as BAEC prepares to vacate the premises when its lease ends in November.