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Town of Hodges makes plans to sell Rock Bridge Canyon Equestrian Park

Rock Bridge Canyon Equestrian Park closed its “doors,” so to speak, at the end of June after – in a special-called meeting last month – the Hodges Town Council voted to deem the property as “surplus and no longer needed for municipal purposes,” as it states in the notice of sale.

Mayor Joyce Saad said the town owes $1.2 million on the park, and mediation between the town and the bank led to the option to declare it surplus and accept bids for the sale.

The town’s attorney Jeff Bowling said a number of factors led to it being no lone financially feasible for the town to operate the park. Given the totality of the situation, Bowling said the sale is “by far the best solution for everybody, the town and the bank – there’s no question.”

According to the Notice of Sale, the town approved a resolution June 17 to accept sealed bids for the property, with bidding open until 12:01 p.m. Aug. 12.

“It breaks my heart to think that it won’t be in our possession,” said Saad. “I’ve tried to close it down with dignity and do the fair thing by refunding the deposits for anyone who had a reservation with us.”

The history of RBCEP is as meandering as the canyon trails that have attracted hikers and horseback riders since the park opened to the public in October 2013. Located at 331 Trail Head Road in Hodges, the park required years of work and planning by local and state officials to open. In addition to the canyon trails, the park boasted a number pull-through campsites, horse stalls, bathhouses with toilets, sinks and showers for overnight campers, an office housing the RBCEP office, check-in center and campsite store and an arena that has been the site for numerous rodeos and other events.

It’s not easy to pin down the problems the park has faced since its opening that has led to the point of its sale – and the fault falls to different parties depending on who one asks. Some of the trouble, however, can be traced back to Aug. 23, 2016 – the day Terry Petree won the election for mayor over opponents Danny Avery and Wendell Williford.

The series of events that followed might always be a he-said-she-said situation. Factually, however, in November 2016 the Hodges Town Council voted to rework park director Mike Franklin’s salary, approving an $18 per hour pay rate, and Franklin voiced his feeling that his attempts to go above and beyond were neither appreciated nor fairly compensated. By the end of the month, Franklin had resigned his position, with supporters claiming he was essentially forced out, and the Town of Hodges was left without a director for the equestrian park.

Franklin’s resignation triggered controversy over the park’s right to allow visitors access the canyon, since access had previously been permitted via agreement with the landowners contingent upon Franklin’s employment as park director. Property owner Deborah Avery –  Franklin’s sister and wife to Danny Avery –  said at that time that their contract with the town dissolved upon Franklin’s resignation.

The park continued to operate, amidst a lawsuit filed by the Averys and – in 2017 – a threat by the bank of foreclosure that never came to pass.

Saad was appointed as mayor last year when Petree resigned, to complete his term through 2020. She said at least some of the problems the park has faced can be traced to the controversy and bad feelings since 2016.

The park has reportedly never become profitable for the town, but Saad said it has always been beloved by visitors.

“Everybody who visited here just loved it,” said Saad, adding the park has attracted visitors from across the country and even Canada. “They just praised it and said they had never been to such a lovely place.

“I’ve never gotten one negative comment about the place,” she added. “Everyone is saddened that we have closed it.”

In selling the property, the Town of Hodges “reserves the right to reject any and all bids which do not exceed $350,000,” according to the notice of sale.

State Bank and Trust of Winfield holds the $750,000 secured mortgage, which will be settled by means of the sale.

As to how the Town will settle its $500,000 unsecured loan from First National Bank of Hamilton – well, that still hangs in the balance.

Since Franklin’s resignation – or his being forced out, depending on who one asks – in 2016, Saad said the park has had a few paid employees but has mostly operated thanks to volunteers – herself included. “I’ve cleaned cabins and cooked and done everything I could,” she said.

Saad said although people have been saddened to hear of the closing – the announcement last week on Facebook has garnered hundreds of comments and shares – she has encouraged people “not to despair.” She said the town is hoping someone will buy the park who “wants to make it shine again.”

“We’re hoping it’s going to be bigger and better,” Saad said – and, she added, the sale “might be a blessing. Whoever owns it might bring in some taxes for us.”