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Future of Harness Track, Sidewalks Arise in Village Budget Talks

Pinehurst’s proposed budget for the upcoming year forecasts a continued rebound from the worst months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This time last year, village leaders budgeted cautiously as they waited the economic fallout to everything from sales tax collections to facility rentals. What happened as the pandemic has played out through 2020 and into 2021 has been a mixed bag as far as effects on Pinehurst’s revenues streams go.

Part of the 1.5-cent tax property increase proposed for the 2022 fiscal year is a holdover from last year, when the Village Council decided to delay a half-cent increase so as not to compound unforeseen effects the pandemic might have on Pinehurst residents. The other penny worth of increase, which will bring in an estimated $381,000 in revenue, will support the village’s acquisition of Given Memorial Library and the Tufts Archives.

The overall general fund budget of nearly $24 million relies on using up to $2.5 million of the village’s comfortable savings. But the actual draw on savings could be far less than that, since planners typically overestimate expenditures and underestimate revenues.

Village staff told council members during a special budget review meeting on Wednesday that the budget projects increases in revenue from sales taxes as well as building permits and fees — both areas that saw robust activity throughout most of the pandemic. Local option sales taxes are expected to generate $4.3 million in revenue, up 16 percent from the current year.

Pinehurst originally anticipated that 100 homes would be built in the village during the 2021 fiscal year. Now that projection is closer to 150, so planners are using that number as the forecast for building activity in 2022.

Overall the proposed budget is 6 percent larger than the one Pinehurst approved a year ago. That includes not only bringing the library and five associated employees on board at some point this fall, but adding another six employees to the Village’s payroll: two firefighters, a planning and zoning specialist, a financial services supervisor, a solid waste equipment operator and a part-time code technician.

The Village Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget during its regular meeting on Tuesday.

The budget projects that the effects of the pandemic on events and gatherings will still have an effect for the remainder of 2021, though.

The Fair Barn is a popular venue that typically rents more than a year in advance. Pinehurst is now estimating that rental revenues for the current year will be a quarter of the $240,000 originally budgeted. The upcoming budget estimates $186,000 in rentals for that facility in the upcoming fiscal year.

“When we set those figures we were still anticipating a COVID impact probably for about six months of this upcoming fiscal year,” said Parks and Recreation Director Mark Wagner. “So if it seems like that is now going away we can probably adjust those numbers upwards, but we were definitely being conservative just not knowing what the impacts of COVID were going to be.”

Though the state’s mass gathering restrictions have largely been lifted, Village Manager Jeff Sanborn still advised caution when predicting trends for the next year.

“It really is kind of hard to work through all these impacts and figure out what might happen. The restrictions that would be impacting these revenues have largely been lifted now, still I think there are folks in our community that are hesitant so there’s that on the one side,” he said.

“On the other side, given what we went through over the last year there’s probably some pent-up demand out there. So those are offsetting things, to what degree one’s bigger than the other I don’t know. There’s always the possibility that we might have a rebound in the COVID situation that might result in some of these restrictions being put back in place, so I think it’s best to be realistically conservative on these estimates.”

A Question at the Track

The effects of the pandemic on rentals at the Pinehurst Harness Track, though, may ultimately pale in comparison to larger trends in the harness racing industry.

The village initially budgeted $202,000 in revenue from stall rentals for the 2020-2021 winter season. But thanks in part to travel and quarantine restrictions in Canada and the northern states, where those horses race in the warmer months, the updated estimate for the current year is now $132,000.

But Wagner said that Pinehurst is also losing appeal as a winter training location now that northern tracks are refusing to hold trainers’ stalls open for racing season to discourage them from heading south. There’s also the economic consideration: at Pinehurst, those trainers aren’t racing and earning purse money and the relatively low rental rates have not proven sufficient compensation.

“We’re certainly hoping to rebound this year now that COVID has kind of hopefully gone away,” said Wagner. “But until we see those contracts in hand we just can’t guarantee that those numbers are going to go up. We’re cautiously optimistic but I would not tell you for sure that we’re going to have 50 more horses next year.”

Pinehurst is budgeting a scaled-back $145,000 from stall rentals for the upcoming year. But Councilmember Kevin Drum suggested that the question of harness racing’s future in Pinehurst is due serious consideration.

“We’re going to have to shift a lot of attention to it, in my opinion because I personally know a lot of those racers and I guess they’re giving incentives for people, ‘if you leave you might not be able to come back,’” he said.

“There’s something going on where they’re staying up north, and there’s something going on about there’s no place to stay for these relatively low-income grooms. A lot of factors make that number go down in perpetuity.”

Councilwoman Lydia Boesch agreed that the village should invest more energy in determining the best use of the harness track moving forward.

“I saw we’re putting additional money in for marketing, but it might be bigger picture than just marketing,” she said. So maybe it is a work session item, because we really have a gem out there and I’m not sure it’s being used to its fullest potential. Maybe the potential’s not there, I don’t know, but it’s something that we need to sort out.”

Pedestrian plans debated

Council members devoted about an hour of Wednesday’s meeting to debating whether the $400,000 included in the proposed budget to install sidewalks might not be premature given where the village is in planning for non-automotive transportation routes.

In its five-year strategic plan Pinehurst has earmarked $100,000 in the 2023 fiscal year to create a multi-modal transportation plan facilitating pedestrian, bicycle, and golf cart traffic around the village.

“Whenever we’ve embarked on these pedestrian facilities, I feel like it has been without a master plan. It’s been incremental and ad hoc,” said Councilwoman Judy Davis.

“We don’t have a big picture of what this could look like. If we put concrete ribbons all over our neighborhoods, what would that look like? We don’t have a schematic of what the driveway cuts are. I just feel like that’s a piece that we ought to put some energy in so we can have a real plan, so that people understand what this means.”

Davis, Drum, and Boesch all took issue with the fragmented nature of the village’s sidewalk installation projects thus far, and indicated that they might support advance planning ahead of further construction.

Currently the village has no concrete plans for that sidewalk installation, but the $400,000 budgeted would allow the Village Council to approve something in the coming fiscal year. Areas under serious consideration include the Lake Pinehurst neighborhood on Diamondhead Drive and Burning Tree Road to facilitate access to the resort’s beach club.

Drum said that the subject has been a consistent area of concern for him, and suggested that the multi-modal transportation plan be moved up a year – even bringing on an outside consultant if necessary. Pinehurst’s planning staff already has a number of irons in the fire between implementation of the comprehensive land use plan, the upcoming implementation of Small Area Plans for the Pinehurst South and Village Place areas, and ongoing updates to the Pinehurst Development Ordinance plus a wholesale revision scheduled for the coming year.

Boesch concurred, and said that the Village Council should be giving better guidance to Pinehurst’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

“They’re doing the best they can but it’s like they're working in a vacuum without a solid foundation, a solid vision of what we want to do with our interconnectivity, everything,” she said, characterizing the village’s current approach as “spout solutions to spot problems.”

Davis also said that the village should present a clearer picture on both the micro level — what sidewalks would actually look like where they’re installed and what erosion and drainage control might accompany them — and when it comes to the broader goal of enhancing pedestrian traffic through Pinehurst: both west of N.C. 5 to core amenities like Rassie Wicker Park and from Linden and Burning Tree to the West Pinehurst Community Park.

“I think that unless we present a very clear picture to the homeowners what’s going to be in their front yard, we’re not doing our job in communicating the change they might not even be asking for,” said Davis.

“I would defer the $400,000 as it relates to laying down sidewalks down Pine Vista and Burning Tree until we have a broader sidewalk plan for the whole of Pinehurst so we can all see what that looks like. I think this incremental approach is dangerous and detracts vitally from the character of our community.”

Planning Director Darryn Burich suggested that the money could be dedicated this year toward some of the priorities already laid out in Pinehurst’s existing bicycle and pedestrian plans.

“What I would suggest that we do is take a look at each of those lists, see if they're still relevant, see what we’ve implemented since then and just start with that as our basis to see if there are short-term solutions or short-term wins we can get in both of those plans,” he said.

Councilwoman Jane Hogeman, though, objected to the characterization of the sidewalk projects so far as “random,” and offered a vote of confidence in the plans as presented.

“I don’t think that’s entirely fair, based on what I have learned about the bike-ped plan. I think that they do have a plan and they do have routes that they’re trying to provide with the sidewalks,” she said.

“It's not that we’re sitting here twiddling our thumbs doing nothing. These are pieces of the puzzle that we are working on this year. Transportation goes through everything and we need to remember that’s the case. I think we’re good. I think we’re working toward, and even though we call the project multi-modal, we’re putting the pieces together now to be able to do it and finish it in 2023.”

Author: Mary Kate Murphy - ThePilotNewspaper

Photo: April 6, 2019 - Pinehurst, N.C., USA - RICHARD HUMPHREY and MISTER PUZZLES, on the inside, have competition from VICTOR WILLIAMS and REDDING HANOVER in the second race during the 70th annual Spring Matinee Harness races sponsored by the Pinehurst Driving & Training Club, at the Pinehurst Harness Track, Pinehurst, North Carolina. This year's races commemorate the 104th anniversary of the track. (Credit Image: © Timothy L. Hale/The Pilot via ZUMA Wire)

Timothy L. Hale

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