Harford, Cecil vie for horse facility

State panel this week will visit possible equestrian park sites

Big boost for tourism, economy seen

August 07, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Harford and Cecil counties, which recently teamed up on plans to accommodate the anticipated job growth at Aberdeen Proving Ground, are going head-to-head in a battle to be home to what is expected to be one of the premier horse parks in the nation.

The proposed facility, which has been called a Disneyland for horses, would be a major tourist attraction luring national and international equestrian events.

As proposed by the Maryland Stadium Authority, the park would sit on a minimum of 500 acres - preferably 800 to 1,200 acres - and would include a 5,000-seat enclosed arena and six to 12 outdoor showrooms.

Plans call for an outdoor amphitheater for equestrian competition, festivals, fairs, trade shows and concerts.

There would be boarding facilities for horses, kennels for hounds, trails for riding and areas for steeplechase events.

Other features would include a concession center, a visitors center and a campground that would feature many of the comforts of home - bathhouses, electric and water hookups, phone and Internet access. A museum would highlight the state's rich equestrian heritage.

"This would make Cecil County the center for equestrian excellence on the East Coast, and we will pursue it very aggressively," said Vernon Thompson, the county's economic development director and lead official on the project. "It would put Cecil County on the map."

Cecil County has proposed locating the park at Fair Hill, a 5,613-acre state-owned natural resource center that already hosts more than 130 equestrian events each year.

Harford County is offering a site divided into three pieces near Havre de Grace. Combined, they total 837 acres, according to J. Thomas Sadowski, the county economic development director.

Sadowski said the county could obtain an easement to another piece of property that would connect the sites if its proposal is viewed favorably by the state.

For expansion, it would consider buying a private farm near Darlington that would give the horse park visitors access to the Susquehanna State Park and the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway.

In its bid to the Stadium Authority, Harford claims that park visitors would benefit from the convenience of an established tourist destination that features the Chesapeake Bay, Ripken Stadium and Bulle Rock Golf Course, the site of this year's LPGA Championship.

And, of course there's the history of the Havre de Grace Racetrack, or "The Graw" as it was called during its heyday in the first half of the 20th century. The track was considered one of horse racing's gems and lured some of the biggest names in racing, including Seabiscuit, Citation, Man o' War, War Admiral and Whirlaway.

"Harford County's convenient location on the I-95 corridor has made it one of Maryland's most desirable business locations and convenient tourist destinations," County Executive David R. Craig said in a letter to the authority.

He said Harford's location offers easy access to visitors from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., Delaware and Virginia. The county "offers the ideal setting for the Maryland Horse Park."

Listing the reasons that the state should choose Fair Hill in Cecil, Thompson said the site offers 5,613 contiguous acres and requires no easements.

Other attributes of Fair Hill, according to the county's proposal, include:

The land is state-owned and requires no acquisition cost, with no zoning or title issues to restrict its use.

It has more than 75 miles of hiking, biking and horse riding trails.

It is already home to several prestigious national equestrian organizations including the National Steeplechase Association, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau.

It is located in the center of the Mid-Atlantic horse country and is on Interstate 95 between Baltimore and Philadelphia.

"There's the argument that we are in the middle of nowhere," Thompson said. "But I think that's a positive, not a negative. The horse people say they like areas where there is no traffic congestion."

"It would be a smart move on the part of the state to pick Cecil County," Thompson said. "It's plain and simple."

A team from the Stadium Authority is scheduled to visit the Cecil and Harford sites Thursday. The counties are slated to give their oral presentations to the authority Aug. 22, Thompson said.

"Shortly after that, we expect the state to come out with its short list of potential sites," he said.

The current list features proposals from four other counties: Anne Arundel, Carroll, Frederick and Wicomico.

There could be a big payoff for the winner. The Stadium Authority said the park would be modeled on the 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park, which in 2003 pumped nearly $164 million into the local economy and annually draws about 900,000 visitors.

Concerning the competition between Harford and Cecil, Thompson laughed and said that Sadowski "did such an excellent job representing Aberdeen Proving Ground in his presentation to the BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure Commission] that I hope he has nothing left in vying for this project."

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