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Beer distributor Pepin offers way to keep equestrian center in northwest Hillsborough

Chelsea Yarborough rides a horse during an equestrian skills event for the Special Olympics at the Bakas Equestrian Center in Tampa. Since 2001, physically and mentally disabled children have experienced the joy of horse-riding and forged deep connections with the animals. Tom Pepin, president and CEO of Pepin Distributing Co., has submitted a new proposal to Hillsborough County to build two new equestrian centers in exchange for land used by Bakas. Under the new deal, Bakas would move just two miles away to the Northwest Equestrian Park. [Saturday, February 18, 2017] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Chelsea Yarborough rides a horse during an equestrian skills event for the Special Olympics at the Bakas Equestrian Center in Tampa. Since 2001, physically and mentally disabled children have experienced the joy of horse-riding and forged deep connections with the animals. Tom Pepin, president and CEO of Pepin Distributing Co., has submitted a new proposal to Hillsborough County to build two new equestrian centers in exchange for land used by Bakas. Under the new deal, Bakas would move just two miles away to the Northwest Equestrian Park. [Saturday, February 18, 2017] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Published Apr. 18, 2017

TAMPA — Beer distributor Tom Pepin says he felt wrongly cast as a "villain" earlier this year after his proposal to shutter and relocate an equestrian therapy program rankled the families of disabled children.

He wanted the 22-acre tract, in part, for his own estate. But now Pepin has a new idea, and if it flies, those families would have two programs instead of one. Meanwhile, his cost could be roughly the same.

Under a new proposal Pepin submitted to Hillsborough County on Monday, Bakas Equestrian Center would move just 2 miles to a new facility at Northwest Equestrian Park in Odessa. A second riding therapy center would be built at Sydney Dover Trails in Dover.

In exchange for paying for construction, Pepin would get ownership of the tract in northwest Hillsborough County currently used by Bakas. It abuts the 67-acre parcel where he and his family live in a $1.5 million home.

How much Pepin would pay toward building new stables, offices and barns would depend on an independent appraisal of the Bakas site. He has agreed to pay the appraised value plus $50,000. The land has a market value of $827,000, according to property appraiser records.

"I have always been a major philanthropic citizen and have helped hundreds of causes in this community," Pepin said in an email. "I am working hard to satisfy the most people and get the most out of taxpayers' money."

Pepin originally offered to pay $430,000 for a privately owned, 18-acre parcel in Seffner and said he would pay up to $450,000 for the construction of facilities there to replace the Bakas site.

But his proposal to relocate the center 31 miles away in Seffner led to an outcry from families whose mentally and physically disabled children ride horses at the center. Although located in far northwest Hillsborough, Bakas also draws families from Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

The Odessa and Dover tracts now proposed are already owned by the county, eliminating the need to buy land for the new centers.

Kim Hajaistron, whose disabled son, Michael, is a rider at Bakas, said the new deal is better than moving to Seffner. But she remains skeptical that the money Pepin is offering will cover the cost of facilities to match the covered arena, a 13-stall stable and administrative center at Bakas.

"His original proposal was laughable at how cheap he wanted to get us for," she said. "I need to see numbers, and we need to go into this very carefully."

Hillsborough County officials will this week begin evaluating the new deal, which will likely go for approval before commissioners within the next two months.

They plan to get feedback from Bakas parents and obtain estimates for stable construction, said Forest Turbiville, director of the Conservation and Environmental Lands Management Department.

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Located on S Mobley Road, Northwest Equestrian Park is about 600 acres and has 6 miles of horse trails.

Sydney Dover Trails comprises about 800 acres but roughly two-thirds of that is old phosphate pits and mining areas. Roughly 250 acres are suitable for riding, Turbiville said.

Both parks are viable sites but the county also has to consider the cost of running two centers, he added. Bakas costs about $580,000 a year to run.

"The one thing we don't want to do is reduce service to the existing Bakas facility," Turbiville said.

Riding horses is credited with helping mentally and physically disabled children develop balance, coordination and confidence.

Studies have shown the activity helps calm autistic children who can be prone to flareups and tantrums when they have to switch to different activities, said Bill Lambos, a licensed psychologist and owner of ABF Behavioral Health in Westchase.

"There is something about the experience of connecting with an animal," he said.

In addition to personal use, Pepin said he plans to use the Bakas site to provide therapy for former and current military members and their families.

Along with his father, Art Pepin, Pepin founded Pepin Heart Hospital at University Community Hospital. His company is one of the main donors to Pepin Academies, charter schools that serve students with learning disabilities.

Canvassing of local schools and groups that work with disabled people shows there is strong demand for a therapy center in east Hillsborough, Pepin said.

"I have responses from the families of over 1,200 handicap clients in the eastern county that have said that if the facility were built (there) they would utilize it," he said. "This far exceeds anything the current facility could realize."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.