— By JUDY SHERIDAN
Weatherford College President Dr. Kevin Eaton doesn’t fault Parker County for the loss of the college’s rodeo practice arena, once sited off U.S. Highway 180 West.
It stood directly in the path of the Ric Williamson Memorial Highway, on a 10-acre swath of land that the county purchased from the college for the highway’s right-of-way and had to be removed.
“We were more than happy to cooperate,” Eaton said, acknowledging the price of progress. “The Loop benefits us all.”
Still, the loss has left the rodeo team without a place to practice and others without a place to participate in livestock judging or other classes.
Eaton and head rodeo coach Johnny Emmons were in Commissioner’s Court Monday to talk about a remedy. The college would like to sublet 24 acres of county land south of I-20 on Tin Top Road from the AgriLife Extension Service’s 4-H program, which already leases the land from the county.
The acreage, which supports the 4-H Youth Center’s barn, indoor arena, outdoor arena, equipment and meeting rooms, abuts 14 acres of land owned by the college to the east, Eaton said.
He said Weatherford College would also like to amend the lease to incorporate 5 more acres of county land to the south where the soil would more easily support two practice arenas.
The college would also like to have gravel road access to their land from Tin Top Road.
In the college’s proposal, both entities would share the 4-H Youth Center and acreage, but the college would have priority access, Eaton said.
“A positive for the 4-H program is that they would no longer pay utilities, yet they would have access to the facility,” Eaton said. “The college would pick up the expenses.”
Eaton said the college would also repair the arena, clean up the barn and get the restrooms working again.
College officials have discussed the proposal with 4-H leaders in meetings twice, Kayla Neill, county extension agent for 4-H and Youth Development, said, but the details are still pending.
“I’m looking forward to this,” she said. “It look likes the college can provide us with a much-needed update.”
Neill said utility costs are a huge burden on the 4-H program, with the organization paying between $120 to $150 a month, regardless of the amount of electricity used, which is minimal.
“I haven’t felt pressured [by the college proposal] at all,” she said, “but concerns about paying the utility bills have kept me up at night.”
A lot of time and effort have gone into the youth center’s facilities, Neill said, beginning about 15 years ago, when the 4-H program began leasing county acreage and adding facilities.
“The college has assured us we aren’t going to lose our identity,” she said, “and when we compared our schedules, it doesn’t look like we’ll even cross paths.”
Neill said she is already granting requests from the college to use the center’s facilities.
“Today, Agricultural Science Program Director Mike Brown asked if a horsemanship class could come out and ride,” she said Tuesday. “[Losing their practice arena] has been quite a burden on them, from my understanding.”
After discussing the issue in an executive session of Commissioners’ Court Monday, Judge Mark Riley said officials will not approve the college’s proposal if the 4-H does not agree.
He said later that the court would not discuss the college’s request for an additional 5 acres at this time.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “We’ll look at what the 4-H has.”
Neill said she hopes college representatives and members of the 4-H committee will meet soon and reach a decision quickly.
When the RWMH bisected the college’s land on Hwy 180 West, it left a 34-acre tract on its west side and a 7.1-acre tract on its east, Eaton said. Twenty-two acres are for sale.
The college is in the process of entering long-term leases with three different non-profit organizations, each slated to occupy 6-acre tracts carved from the remainder.
The leases, approved by the College Board of Trustees in December, will be granted to the Parker County Committee on Aging for a tract on the east side of the Loop, and the Parker County Livestock Improvement Association and Sheriff’s Posse for tracts on the west side.
The leases are contingent on a ruling from the attorney general, Eaton said, but no roadblocks are anticipated. The terms of the leases have yet to be decided.
Eaton said the sheriff’s posse hopes to expand parking, the Livestock Improvement Association wants to build an indoor facility and the PCCOA plans to construct its new senior center on land leased from the college.
He said Weatherford College students will benefit from educational experiences at each of the sites, through participation in agricultural, geriatric or health-related programs.