Agreement secures future of Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens after land deal left it in doubt

The Steeplechase at Callaway Gardens plans to announce Wednesday the annual fundraiser for local arts organizations will continue after a Pine Mountain land deal last summer left the nationally sanctioned horse race's future in doubt.

Mason Lampton Sr., the Steeplechase founder and race director, confirmed to the Ledger-Enquirer on Tuesday an agreement has been reached with Joe Rogers Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Norcross, Ga.-based Waffle House.

In July, one of Rogers' companies, Lands' South Ventures LLC, bought roughly 4,500 acres of the 13,000 acres the Ida Cason Callaway Foundation owns. The $8 million deal has helped Callaway reduce its debt, which had grown to $44.5 million in March 2011. That parcel includes the 200-acre tract where the Steeplechase horses race and families frolic amid fall foliage, a highlight on the local social calendar.

"We're excited," Lampton said about the agreement. " It would be a huge cost to relocate."

Edward Callaway, chairman and CEO of Callaway Gardens, said in a written statement, “Steeplechase is such a fun day. What a great event that benefits the community and is well-supported. We are glad to see that it will continue."

Rogers wasn't reached for comment Tuesday. He said in July that he bought the land as a timber investment. He said he would lease the property for hunting but doesn't expect to develop it.

Rogers also said then that he never had attended the Steeplechase and hadn't decided whether to allow the nonprofit event to continue on the property he bought.

"I'm sure it's for a worthy cause," Rogers said in July. "So hopefully I can get by there and find out what a Steeplechase is all about. The only thing I've heard is that they wear interesting hats."

In November, Rogers and his wife, Fran, did indeed attend the Steeplechase and were wowed enough to consider finding a way to continue the event, Lampton said Tuesday.

"Joe and I have been friends for a long time," Lampton said. " He's been very gracious about it."

In fact, the agreement secures the Steeplechase even more. The deal with Callaway was a one-year rollover; the one with Rogers is a three-year rollover, Lampton said. The agreement also requires the Steeplechase to pay Rogers' taxes on the property, which Lampton declined to disclose.

"We couldn't ask for a better agreement," he said.

The dollar amount from the 2012 race will be announced Wednesday, but Lampton said Tuesday it is the third-most money in the event's 28-year history. That pushes the fundraising total over the $3 million mark. The Columbus Museum, Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Historic Columbus Foundation, Ida Cason Callaway Foundation and Springer Opera House benefit from the event.