Students, alumni and community members in Lynchburg, Virginia, are rallying to save the Randolph College Riding Center from closure.
On Feb. 12 the college announced that the Board Of Trustees was considering closing the riding center due to an annual deficit of $350,000 and a drop in participation.
When Caitlin Unterman, a former riding team captain and 2012 graduate, heard the news, she knew she had to do something to save the facility that meant so much to her during her undergraduate years. Unterman is now a professional trainer based just down the road from the riding center. She served on the hiring committee that hired current head coach and director of the riding center Chris Mitchell in 2012. She also earned her masters degree from the college in 2013.
Unterman met with college president Bradley Batemen on Feb. 16, and a meeting was held Feb. 19 to discuss ways to fundraise the $7.3 million needed to keep the facility open—$7 million to go into an endowment and $300,000 for immediate maintenance costs.
The college has given supporters until May 15 of this year to raise the money, which can be pledged and must be paid by May 2019. If the riding center closes, any money pledged or donated will be returned. The timeline is tied to the college’s budget for the next fiscal year which will be decided this summer.
“I also want to reiterate that this is the only option I can offer you,” said Bateman in an email to students and alumni on Feb. 19. “It will not work to run the fundraising for the program on an annual basis, with the alumnae and alumni trying to collect $350,000 every year. There is too much risk in that approach. The option only works if it is the full amount, and it is all in the endowment by summer 2019.”
“There’s a lot more questions than answers right now since it was just sprung on us,” said Unterman. “The basic reaction from everybody is they want to do what whatever they can do to save it. Everybody was willing to help. It was just a matter of how can we help and how can we push it out to the public.”
Currently the riding center, which sits on 100 donated acres, houses 40 horses. There are 25 students on the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association team, 18 of whom are actively showing. Numbers have been declining in recent years, which Unterman partly contributed to lack of publicity by the college, but she’s encouraged that nine students signed up to ride next year. The college, a private liberal arts school founded in 1891 as Randolph-Macon Women’s College, went co-educational in 2007 and changed its name. It has just under 700 students enrolled.
The riding center also hosts regional shows, Intercollegiate Eventing Association activities, Pony Club and 4-H.
“The Randolph College Riding Center is one of the oldest in the nation,” said Unterman. “Our team is winning. We just won this past weekend, and we’re ranked number one in our region right now. The riding center is one thing that has been left unchanged since the beginning of the school’s founding. Through that Randolph College went from a women’s school to a co-education school. A lot of people are very closely tied to the riding center and want it to stay. We’re doing whatever we can do to save it.”
Mitchell said he knew the center was running a deficit when he was hired, but was surprised by the news. “Lynchburg College was riding here as well, but everyone was happy,” he said. “Lynchburg College left and went to another facility and that put a bigger deficit on us. Our recruiting numbers have been lower the last two years. The first three years my recruiting numbers were higher than they’ve ever been here. I was not expecting this news and the timeline. It was a little bit of a shocker to me. This program and this center is so vital, in my opinion, to the school and to what the school is made of and the culture of the school that I’m blown away and not happy.”
Mitchell agreed with Unterman that publicity for the riding program could have been a cause for lower participation, adding that the budget for advertising had been cut, but in speaking with other coaches he’s noticed a decline in participation in riding programs across the country.
“It’s been hard with these small liberal arts schools and riding programs. It’s been tough,” he said. “I don’t think it’s been shrinking; I think it’s been growing a little bit, just not right here for the last two years. I think if given the chance we can turn it around. I’m the winningest program on campus since I’ve been here. The program is great; my students are phenomenal; my horses are phenomenal.”
Mitchell said he’s working on finding a place for the school’s horses should they not come up with the funds by May.
“I guarantee my horses will be taken care of,” he said. “They will not end up anywhere where they shouldn’t be.”
Unterman, who’s heading up an advisory committee with Mitchell and Amanda Rumore, a biology professor and head of the equine studies minor at the college, has posted fliers with QR codes around the area at local companies and has started a Facebook group. She’s hoping to get in touch with equine companies to see if they could sponsor the center to help reduce overhead cost.
“We’re really an open door when it comes to ideas from fundraising; we just know that those have to be in the form of a pledge,” she said. “If it does close, the money is not required to be paid.”
Unterman would like those interested in pledging money to get in touch with her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.