The annual World Racking Horse Celebration in September will likely be the last in Morgan County.
The State Products Mart Authority board is selling the event's venue, the 143-acre Morgan County Celebration Arena property in Priceville, for $2.5 million, according to board director Jimmy Ray Smith.
The purchaser, Aaron Guthrie, was not available for comment. His real estate agent Jeff Parker said a use for the property has not been determined but “it’s not going to be a horse center, for sure.”
While a sales contract has been signed, title to the property will remain with State Products Mart until late November or December, with Celebration Arena closing by Dec. 19.
“There’s some sadness,” said Celebration Arena Chief Operating Officer Bill Stricklend, who is also president of the Racking Horse Breeders Association of America headquartered on the arena property. “There are going to be a lot of tears shed.”
He said his daughter showed her first horse at Celebration Arena when she was 5 years old and she’s now a Birmingham attorney.
“There’s a lot of emotions, a lot of nostalgia,” said Stricklend, a former Morgan County commissioner.
Last year was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Racking Horse Breeders Association. Stricklend said the arena was built in 1971 as the Southeastern Horse Center and the first Racking Horse World Celebration was held there in 1972, making the 50th annual event the last one in the county.
In addition to the 5,000-seat arena, the property has 26 buildings, most of them stables with enough stalls for 600 horses. The arena was once the site of the Alabama High School Athletic Association State Indoor Track Meet, but AHSAA stopped using it in 2008 because of safety concerns about the structure.
Since purchasing it in 2010, Smith said Products Mart has made dramatic improvements to the arena, including a new roof and lighting.
“We probably put a million dollars into it,” Smith said.
The Racking Horse Breeders Association owned the property beginning in 1993, when it was called the Valley Sports Colosseum, and sold it to the State Products Mart Authority in 2009. State Products Mart is a quasi-governmental entity, formed to promote agriculture, with board members appointed by the Morgan County Commission. It has since purchased two smaller parcels of land adjoining the property, including one that has Alabama 67 frontage.
Celebration Arena is located on Horse Center Road, which connects to Alabama 67. The arena is 3 miles southeast of the Alabama 67-Interstate 65 intersection.
Parker and Stricklend said they expect the Breeders Association will still rent office space on the property for its headquarters, but Stricklend said there is no other venue in Morgan County that can host the Racking Horse World Celebration. He is in the process of looking for a 2023 location, but he said the closest arenas with stalls are in Cullman and Huntsville.
In addition to the racking horse event, there are several other annual horse shows and barrel racing events at Celebration Arena, as well as motocross races and the Cotton Cluster Dog Show. Cotton Cluster draws contestants from around the nation, Stricklend said, and is a qualifying event for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show held annually in Madison Square Gardens.
Cotton Cluster will be the last major event at Celebration Arena, from Nov. 10 through Nov. 13. The 12th annual Meagan McCain Memorial Barrel Race is scheduled for Aug. 11-14. Vintage Market Days takes place Sept. 28-29, followed by the Southern Charity Championship Horse Show from Oct. 12-15, and the Alabama Jubilee Horse Show Oct. 21-22. Two MotoX motorcycle races scheduled in December probably will not go forward, Smith said.
Earlier this year the arena hosted a rodeo, the Alabama Saddlebred Spring Show, and the the Southern Obstacle Challenge, a horse-riding competition.
“Arenas just don’t make money,” Stricklend said. “Probably 90% of them are government owned.”
He said the State Products Mart Authority has tried to convince local governmental entities that the arena brings in enough tourism to merit taxpayer support, but has been unsuccessful.
Smith said the Products Board, which receives no county funding, was not actively seeking a buyer when Parker came to it with Guthrie’s offer.
“We had talked about it, but not seriously. Celebration Arena was doing very well (at booking events), but it was one of those things where it felt like we were putting money into it every month. We couldn’t get any money from anybody. The county helped us some with in-kind services, but without support from Priceville or Decatur or somebody, it was going to be a hard go. Then this offer came in.”
Smith said the pandemic “wiped us out,” causing many event cancellations. “We lost quite a bit of money during COVID. We didn’t see it rebounding. The offer was so high we thought it would be good to move on to something new.”
Priceville ran sewer to the arena, Smith said, but Products Mart never connected to it. “It was going to cost us quite a bit of money to tie into it, and we never quite got to that point. It’s a good piece of property.”
Priceville Mayor Sam Heflin said he suspected the arena could have been profitable if its management had been more aggressive in attracting events.
"I hate that it's selling. It could have done a lot more for Priceville if it had been run differently," he said.
He anticipates that the arena's closure will have a greater economic effect on Decatur than Priceville because most event attendees used Decatur hotels.
Heflin said he had hoped the new owner would continue to operate it as an arena, but absent that he hopes for something other than a residential development, which would bring little tax money to the city.
"I really wish it was going to be something commercial or light industrial," he said.
Melvin Duran, mayor of Priceville for 34 years until he retired in 2020, said loss of the Racking Horse World Celebration and other events will hurt Priceville, although he figures future uses for the property could be a positive. As a volunteer firefighter before he was in elected office he helped with crowd control at the racking horse event.
“It’s always been an economic boost to Priceville. Now we’ve got four hotels. I’m sure there will be some economic loss just on the tax money, not counting the gas and people who shop at the grocery store,” he said.
Duran said the availability of sewer should make the land valuable for a residential development or for industry.
“It’s got sewer and water and electricity. That’s the three ingredients you need to develop a property,” he said.
Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long said he was disappointed at the sale, but he understood the decision.
“It really hadn’t made any money in a long time. It brings a lot of events in, which is good, but they haven’t been able to make a profit in a while,” Long said. “All of those guys on the board are good business people, and they saw a chance to do something they thought was right.”
Long said the county had no interest in providing financial assistance to the arena beyond the in-kind services it has provided.
“When it’s something that big and you have to start subsidizing it, that lets you know right off there’s a problem somewhere,” Long said. “It’s been a good thing for years, but at the end of the day you have to look at the bottom line. You can’t continually lose money.”
State Products Mart Authority in 2019 sold the 49.2-acre property in Southwest Decatur that had long hosted the Morgan County Fair to a company managed by Parker for $1.4 million, effectively ending the fair. In 2015 the authority sold 175 acres near Thompson Road, east of I-65, for $875,500, in part to raise money for Celebration Arena operations. It had bought the Thompson Road property for $700,000 as a possible site for the Morgan County Fair.
Smith said State Products Mart has about $1.5 million in savings.
While Parker said the property will no longer be used for horses, he said the new owner is looking for a good use.
“If somebody’s got a great idea, we’d love to hear it. Anything’s possible at this point.”