Hay barn reputation just a memory at Pony Express Pavilion

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A visit to the Pony Express Pavilion on a Wednesday afternoon easily blots out seemingly ancient memories of the pavilion's early years, when it was derided as a hay barn.

Thousands now crowd the concrete pavement under the metal roof for the Carson Farmers Market each summer Wednesday. The farmers market has helped redefine the once maligned Pony Express Pavilion at Mills Park as a popular place to seek out produce and crafts.

Many people toting bags of tomatos, peaches and nuts moved to Carson City recently enough that they aren't aware of the pavilion's problematic public perception as recently as two or three years ago.

More encouraging for those closely involved with the pavilion, few still refer to the structure as "Marv's Folly" or the "Portuguese hay barn" - both in reference to former Mayor Marv Teixeira, of Portuguese descent, and the driving force behind building the pavilion.

"Like everything else, it takes time," said Teixeira, remembering how the Carson City Community Center, too, was regarded as a white elephant when it was build in the early 1970s before gaining acceptance.

The farmers market brings an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people to the pavilion each Wednesday from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. from the middle of June until the second week of September.

"Before, there were people who had never been in it and were going on and on saying negative things," said Candy Duncan, executive director of the Carson City Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Those people have become converted. That was the key to the whole vision: getting our community to accept the pavilion."

Shirley Abshade-Sponsler, the market's manager, confirmed that many shoppers stop by her booth to comment that their disapproval of the pavilion has turned around with the farmers market.

Along with newcomers, children make year-round use of the pavilion playing in-line hockey or taking part in Kick Back Kamp.

"We're raising a whole generation of kids that are seeing it in a positive light," said Rob Joiner, director of the city's Redevelopment Agency, which sponsors the farmers market.

The turning point for the Pony Express Pavilion may have come a bit over two years ago. Mayor Ray Masayko asked City Manager John Berkich to assemble a community task force to establish a vision for the pavilion.

The pavilion has endured something of an identity crisis since opening in summer 1993.

Was it an special events center to attract tourists, or a place for community activities?

For the first five years, the city desperately sought to have a summer events center, possibly with name entertainment to match the pavilion's opening act: Three Dog Night.

The Carson City Convention and Visitors Bureau booked events from May to October until 1996, never with any consistent success. The bureau thought bringing in local promotion firm NevadaFest for summer 1997 would be the answer.

NevadaFest had only a one-month lead to schedule that summer, a losing ingredient from the start, and NevadaFest did not return the following year.

By that time, Berkich's task force lowered the bar for the Pony Express Pavilion. They shelved ambitions of trying to bring in tourists and settled for treating the pavilion as a multi-use community center for events such as flea markets, farmers markets, a gathering place - even a place for auto shows.

The 1998 vision also called for costly improvements, but those ideas remain on paper.

"Instead of making the pavilion more user friendly and useful, we found a way to stage events over there that are compatible with the facility as it was," Masayko said.

The pavilion has long-acknowledged faults. Wind blows through the open sides and a horrid sound system makes staging a concert a near impossible feat.

Two years ago, City Hall looked at spending from $200,000 to $500,000 to improve the pavilion. Along with sound and walls, the plan addressed lighting, adding a full-time staff and improving turnaround time for dismantling the hockey rink.

"Those improvements are still needed and certainly should be considered, but in our budget cycles they continue to lose out to issues of higher priority," Berkich said. "I think we're more comfortable with its role in the community, but at the same time we would always hope for it to achieve the purpose of a mult-purpose events center."

These improvements likely will rely on rent paid by outside parties. Nearly all the major tenants at the pavilion are city sponsored.

For now, those events - the farmers market, in-line hockey and Kick Back Kamp - will remain the primary tenants.

The Sierra In-line Hockey League has expanded its season and tripled its player roster in three years. Last year, hockey took to the pavilion in early October, after previous seasons running from mid-November to mid-April, said Steve Kastens, director of the Carson City Parks and Recreation Department.

Hockey drew 150 to 200 players three years ago. Now some 400 to 450 suit up for the winter months, he said.

Kick Back Kamp fills the pavilion five days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for nine weeks, except Wednesdays when the program makes way for the farmers market at noon. About 300 to 400 children take part in the camp from mid-June to mid-August.

Teixeira, in the middle of his eight-year term as mayor that ended in 1996, looked at the pavilion as a large gathering place and a venue for special events. Carson City had no covered facility for large gatherings.

The initial plan for the pavilion called for an ice rink, but the firm that was to supply the rink pulled out at the last minute. Improvised efforts to create an ice rink in 1993 failed. Although it was cold enough that winter to freeze pipes in houses, the skating rink just didn't want to remain ice, Teixeira remembered.

Teixeira didn't envision roller hockey, a farmers market or a day camp. Nevertheless, he likes to see the pavilion kept busy.

"I'm most pleased that the facility is really being used," Teixeira said, "and most importantly it's being used by the youth of our community."

The event bringing the most diverse gathering to the Pony Express Pavilion is the Carson Farmers Market. The event moved to the pavilion in summer 1999 after two years at Third and Curry streets.

The cramped street setting didn't work for the market and Abshade-Sponsler shopped around for another location. She checked out six or seven sites; only the Pony Express Pavilion offered everything the portable market needed.

"We've got restrooms, lighting, clean floors," Abshade-Sponsler said. "We have shade from the sun and we're protected from thunderstorms and there's lots of parking. Anywhere else where we could find space there was no parking, no light, no electricity."

Berkich is relieved to see positive use at a $1.2 million facility thought of as an albatross only a few years ago. The city manager has confidence that the pavilion's purpose will mature as the population grows.

"It's achieved a functional place in the menu/inventory of city facilities for public use," Berkich said. "As the region grows, we will continue to find new uses. I think we will continue to see other examples (like the farmers market)."


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