Communities champing at bit to win horse park

Annapolis, Harford County likely in the running for venue

July 31, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Annapolis and Harford County are expected to be among the localities bidding tomorrow to become the venue for the Maryland Horse Park, a complex that state officials hope will be Maryland's answer to Kentucky's horse park in Lexington.

Other places that indicated they will apply include Frederick and Cecil counties. The deadline for applications with the Maryland Stadium Authority is 2 p.m. tomorrow.

Montgomery County apparently has dropped out of the race because of the difficulty of meeting the state criteria, which includes identifying 800 to 1,200 acres near an interstate highway. Preliminary plans call for a 5,000-seat arena, an outdoor amphitheater for competitions, hundreds of horse stalls and a museum.

Alison L. Asti, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, estimated that a half-dozen proposals would be received and reviewed by the authority and the seven-member committee considering the best site for a first-class equestrian venue.

The committee will have options to consider all over the Maryland map. The site selection target date is Sept. 15.

"We are hopeful we can shortlist the sites quickly," Asti said, adding that the goal is to bring a bond bill before the General Assembly next year.

Maryland has venues for competitions such as steeplechase, polo and dressage, but horse enthusiasts have said the state needs a state-backed showcase.

Maryland officials envision a facility that is large enough to accommodate steeplechase, polo, fox chasing, dressage, show rings, trail riding, and rodeo shows.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is "deeply committed" to building the park, a spokeswoman said. State officials are eyeing a facility on a par with the 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, which was built in 1978 and draws about 900,000 visitors annually to its big horse show, museum and campground.

The Maryland horse park's economic impact could exceed $100 million annually, state officials said, mainly in hotel and sales tax revenues.

The ambitious park is part of "a strategic plan" for the horse industry, which generated $1.6 billion for the state last year, said J. Robert Burk, executive director for the Maryland Horse Industry Board.

Asti, who visited Lexington's horse park Friday with a team of state officials, said the Maryland Horse Park likely would break even or run at a slight loss.

"But you don't build this for the bottom line," Asti said. "The economic impact in tax revenues is huge."

In Harford County, officials have proposed a site that involves revitalizing and building around the Graw, an old race track in Havre de Grace.

"It's a creative proposal for a viable Mid-Atlantic location," said Tom Sadowski, the county's economic development director. "We have a great equine history in horse breeding and training."

Frederick County's pitch offers a 603-acre equine and educational site on the Mount St. Mary's University campus near Emmitsburg.

Colby Ferguson, the Frederick County official who hand-delivered the proposal Friday, said it could be expanded by more than 300 acres if necessary. "The unique part of our proposal is the university setting," he said.

Annapolis has proposed linking an old city-owned woodlands and waterworks property - several miles northwest of the city line - with a shuttered state psychiatric hospital site in Crownsville, near Interstate 97. Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer is a horse enthusiast who owns a few thoroughbreds in Kentucky.

Jan Hardesty, spokeswoman for Moyer, said two of the state capital's strong suits are a central location near Baltimore-Washington International Airport and its healthy tourism industry. The state request for nominations specified that lodging and a major highway should be near the horse park to make it a viable destination for out-of-state tourists.

Cecil County officials proposed Fair Hill, an existing equestrian facility once owned by the DuPont family. They said the state-owned parcel could be expanded to encompass other features needed for a horse park.

Vernon J. Thompson, the county's economic development director, said, "This [Fair Hill] proposal doesn't require easements or zoning changes or acquisition. We have 75 miles of riding trails. We're good to go."

Thompson noted that Cecil County is well-known horse country, with the national racehorse protection bureau and the national steeplechase association offices located there.

Only one Eastern Shore community is expected to pursue the horse park. A Wicomico County official, Gary Mackes, said a 836-acre private farm southwest of Hebron, near Salisbury, would be the center of the plan, because the owners were willing to sell.

Another Eastern Shore county official, Jok Walsh of Caroline County, said that he got the impression from officials that proposals from that part of Maryland were "not favored" because of Bay Bridge traffic.

Despite expectations that Montgomery County would submit a proposal, county officials decided against it because they felt their prime future site, Woodstock Equestrian Park in Beallsville, does not meet the criteria, officials said.

Whatever site is designated by the state, an architecture team is in place and ready to go to work, Asti said.

Last week, Richter Cornbrooks Gribble of Baltimore and Gralla Architects of Oklahoma were named project architects.

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