State Rep. Ronnie Sutton of Pembroke has introduced a bill to help the county build the horse arena at the Southeastern North Carolina Agricultural Center/Farmers Market. The bill includes transferring ownership of land at the facility to the county.
Local delegation members Reps. Garland Pierce and Doug Yongue are co-sponsors of the legislation.
The county Board of Commissioners first asked the General Assembly in 2004 for permission to implement a hotel tax. Similar pleas were made in 2005 and again earlier this year. The proposed hike would add $1.50 to the cost of a $50-a-night room.
“It worked,” County Manager Ken Windley said. “The county commissioners are very pleased. It looks like it might become a reality. This is the first step.”
A horse arena could cost upward of $22 million. Windley said a 3 percent countywide tax could pay for about a third of the cost of the arena by raising $350,000 to $400,000 a year.
A multi-purpose arena could seat 5,000 people and include 400 stables, parking and an RV area. It could also be used for car shows, demolition derbies and concerts. The bill also calls for the creation of the Robeson County Tourism Development Authority, which would promote the arena.
The proposal has not been well-received in the past by tourism officials who say it will hurt business and is unfair because it only targets the hotel industry.
The countywide occupancy tax would go on top of a 3 percent occupancy tax in Lumberton, a 2 percent occupancy tax in Rowland and a 7.5 percent special Interstate 95 district tax in St. Pauls. Red Springs has a motel, but no occupancy tax.
Red Springs and Lumberton town boards have passed motions supporting the idea.
The bill will be sent to the Finance Committee for consideration. If approved, Sutton said the bill will move to the Agriculture Committee. Sutton said it is too difficult to predict a timeline for the bill.
“I have no idea,” he said.
Sutton's bill transfer 35 acres of underdeveloped land at the facility to the county. That needs to be done so the county can pursue grants to help with the cost of the arena.
“The state agreed to build a horse arena, but the center has never been fully developed, including the refrigeration system on the farmers market side,” Sutton said. “This is just one of many proposals being looked at to resolve this issue.”
The horse complex was part of the original design of the farmers market, but was scratched because of state budget problems. The idea has resurfaced in recent years as a way to make the facility self-supporting. The facility has lost millions of dollars since opening in 1999 and the General Assembly has considered shutting it down.