An Egg Harbor Township therapeutic horseback riding nonprofit that closed last year is still in the process of distributing nearly $82,000 in assets, tax documents show.

In September, the Atlantic Riding Center for Health's board of trustees abruptly sold its Asbury Avenue facility to a private individual, Mays Landing resident Robert J. Orchard, for $400,000. The nonprofit, founded in 1988 to provide riding lessons to the disabled, reported no profit from the sale.

Former clients and riders still question the circumstances behind the sale and how the proceeds were used, as ARCH's board has largely been silent. Federal law requires defunct nonprofits to distribute their remaining assets to other nonprofits after all debts are paid.

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According to the nonprofit's 2012 IRS form 990 tax return, which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, ARCH's board awarded $74,000 in grants last year and ended the year with more than $82,000 in assets.

MaryAnn Wagner, the board member who oversaw the sale, said the decision to sell was made because of competition from a neighboring facility and mounting expenses that cut into the facility's operating budget. In 2011, the year before the sale, the nonprofit reported an operating loss of nearly $68,000 on its tax return.

"It wasn't a cheap thing to run," she said. "There were leaks in the barn, it needed a new roof - the place needed work and attention."

Other members, including board attorney Robert Reilert, refused to comment on the closing or its aftermath. Reilert also refused to make available the latest tax return, which was filed in April, despite IRS requirements.

"I don't feel any compulsion to speak with you, and neither does anyone else on the board," he said.

Board President Anne Cancelmo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

According to deeds on file with the Atlantic County Clerk's Office, the nonprofit paid $70,000 in 1995 to acquire much of the 13-acre parcel off Asbury Avenue. The next year, it paid $1 to Atlantic City Electric for another parcel. The county does not have a mortgage on file.

The nonprofit reported $422,300 in proceeds from the sale of assets last year, but also claimed more than $785,000 in costs and expenses. That resulted in a net loss of nearly $363,000. According to the IRS, nonprofits can claim costs related to the sale, depreciation of property and improvements made between the initial purchase and the sale.

Wagner said the board is still working this year to distribute the remaining assets - more than $82,000 as of Dec. 31, 2012 - to other nonprofits. She said groups who help animals are given preference, although she could not provide a list of charities that received funds. The tax documents do not specify who received the grants, information the IRS does not require to be reported.

"We have some money left," she said. "We want to make sure everyone's paid and everything's done. The money was dispersed correctly."

As of July 11, the IRS still listed ARCH as an eligible tax-exempt organization.

Regardless of how the sale took place and where the money went, former instructors and riders are still puzzled by how quickly the nonprofit dissolved.

Diane Macknis, 65, of Yardley, Pa., had been taking her autistic son John, 31, to ARCH since he was 12 years old.

"He doesn't smile much, but as soon as he gets on that horse, he smiles from ear to ear until he gets off," she said. "I can see the enjoyment on his face, or else we wouldn't travel two hours one way to get there."

Aside from the rumors that preceded the sale, Macknis said she was given virtually no notice that ARCH would be closing.

"We should've been told," she said.

One week, Macknis said she was told ARCH would no longer be there. That short notice would have been difficult for John, she said, if not for the rumors that preceded it.

"It would have been a shock to him," she said. "Autistic people do not take change easily."

Betty Morgan, a longtime ARCH instructor, said about two-thirds of her riders have moved with her next door to Hearts Therapeutic Riding Center, but many others could not make that transition because they needed special accommodations the Hearts center could not provide.

"They don't have the volunteer staff to handle riders with wheelchairs and compromised balance, so they have to limit who they accept into their riding program," she said.

The adjacent facilities also lack an enclosed, year-round practice area. That means lessons are halted during the coldest months of the year.

"When you have to stop your lessons during wintertime, you have to start all over again," she said.

While there are several comparable riding centers scattered throughout the state, Morgan, 47, of the Elwood section of Mullica Township, said there aren't enough to handle the demand.

Wagner said Hearts was part of the reason for ARCH's troubles. The neighboring facility was founded by Sue Adams, a former ARCH executive director whose position had been terminated.

"(Adams) started her own for-profit business next door and put a sign up, waving people over to her property," Wagner said.

The added competition, compounded with large overhead costs, eventually forced ARCH to consider closing, she said. As soon as a prospective buyer made an acceptable offer, the sale was finalized.

Adams said her separation agreement included a 12-month noncompete clause that she honored after her position with ARCH was terminated. She ultimately founded Hearts in October 2011 because former ARCH instructors and riders were asking for a new place to ride.

"I think it's a very sad scenario," she said of the closing.

Wagner said the level of vitriol surrounding the closing - including several heated gatherings outside the facility and at an Egg Harbor Township Committee meeting - caused the board to shut down and not make any public comments.

Like Macknis, Bob Cartier moved his 18-year-old daughter Ashley next door to Hearts after ARCH's closing. Ashley, who is deaf and has a learning disability, had been at ARCH for nine years.

"Honestly, we still ride on Saturdays next door, and it's difficult to pull up next door and see the building sitting there," said Cartier, 53, of Galloway Township.

While the family was "shocked and heartbroken" at the time, Cartier said his daughter has adjusted to the new routine. The familiar faces there - a number of ARCH riders and volunteers also made the transition - has helped, he said.

"None of us really know what went on (at ARCH)," he said. "We heard all the different stories."

Contact Wallace McKelvey:


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