By ROY WOOD
With no horse racing for two years and no Medieval Faire this year, it would be reasonable for one to believe that the Desert Park Exhibition Society (DPES) has disappeared from the Osoyoos scene.
But that is far from the case.
Recently elected president Bobbie Fischer and the rest of the volunteer board of directors are at work trying to keep the lights on and move the society and the equine facility it operates back to financial health.
There had been horse racing at Desert Park on and off since the early 1980s, but the last races were in 2017, as the sport has been in general decline and the BC racing circuit has all but vanished.
The Medieval Faire, which ran over the May long weekend from 2016 through 2018, featured jousters on horseback, a medieval village and other attractions. But attendance waned over the three years and Fischer, the primary organizer, was unwilling to continue in the role.
The Medieval Fair was a substantial money maker for the society, generating $23,000, $15,000 and $13,000 over the three years.
There have been no events at Desert Park this year and none are planned, after a couple of promising ideas failed to materialize.
“The park needs to be preserved,” Fischer said in a recent interview with ODN. “That’s why I’m here.”
At the core of the park are five barns capable of holding a total of up to 150 horses. And there is the five-eighths-of-a-mile race track, suitable for thoroughbred racing and training.
The income from the equine facilities is one of two financial pillars supporting the park.
The main business is the winter training program for thoroughbreds. They come mainly from Alberta, Washington and the BC interior to train between January and April. Trainers pay $150 a month per horse for a stall in the barn and access to the track.
Fischer said the goal is to move the numbers closer to 100 horses for the coming winter from the 44 who trained this year. She said building better relationships with race tracks and horse owners is key to improving the business.
As well, she said, Desert Park employs an expert track groomer – “a real professional” – which will also add to the attractiveness of the Osoyoos facility.
Besides winter training, the society is building small enclosures outside of nine stalls in the west barn for so-called “self-boarding.” Horse owners will pay $150 a month for access to the barn and are responsible for feeding the animals and cleaning the stalls.
The market for self-boarding is local, although no customers have committed yet. Fischer said she plans to open the stalls by August 5.
She sees the second financial pillar as the 11-site recreational vehicle area immediately east of the horse barns. The spots rent for $500 per month and could generate substantial income.
Unfortunately, it appears that running an RV park would run afoul of town zoning bylaws.
The society recently asked town council for a waiver of about $3,000 in water and sewer charges, about $280 for each of the units. They also sought “consideration … to offer a year-round resident RV campground.”
The waiver request was turned down. And during discussion of the matter, staff told council that a commercial RV park is not permitted under the current zoning.
In a recent interview, town chief administrative officer Barry Romanko said: “Those stalls are not intended for year-round residences or snowbirds. They’re intended to provide amenity living space for activities on site.”
One of the spots is occupied by the resident manager, which is permitted under the society’s licence of occupation.
But a couple of spaces are rented to people who don’t work there and another is home to the owners of the trail ride business operating at the park. According to Romanko, those are technically in violation of the agreement.
Asked whether the town would enforce the zoning bylaw, Romanko said: “We don’t monitor the licence of occupation. We leave that to the integrity of the agreement and the integrity of the partnership that we have. … (But) the situation would no different from any other enforcement of a zoning infraction. We have bylaws … and there would be some type of enforcement completed.”
Allowing an RV park on the site would require the society to go through a re-zoning application process, including a public hearing.
The only member of council to vote in favour of the waiver request was Councillor Jim King. He was one of the founders of the society in 2011 and remains a supporter and would like to see the venue better utilized.
In an interview, King said: “From the town’s perspective there should be more events up there. Could be a music fest, could be any type of event.
“Horse racing is pretty hard to get going again. But any type of equestrian event, barrel racing, anything like that.”
King said he is optimistic: “I’m pretty excited. There’s a new board there. I think there’s some new energy, some new enthusiasm. It’s hard with a small budget. But it’s seeing what type of events they could bring (in) and then build on it.”
Mayor Sue McKortoff, who voted against the waiver, said in a recent interview she is “not sure what the benefit (of Desert Park) is to the town.
“We do hear from people who bring horses here that they … spend their money in town and go to restaurants and that sort of thing. They do provide an economic benefit is my understanding. I don’t know how much.”
The Desert Park site – directly south of the Osoyoos Golf Club and east of the Dividend Ridge residential neighbourhood – was granted to the town by the province for recreational use in 1981.
As for its long-term future, Romanko said that according to the town’s community service master plan, “If the horse use of the area ever failed to the point of discontinuation … it could be the site of future recreation facilities, like an arena or a pool.”
Fischer sees horses and gambling as the future: “My vision is to see a racetrack and a casino.”
1. Roy Wood
2. Jack Bennest