Farm selected for horse park

Stadium Authority decides on land owned by Naval Academy


A scenic and historic former dairy farm owned by the Naval Academy was chosen by the Maryland Stadium Authority yesterday as the first choice for a lavish Maryland Horse Park -- but not everyone is happy about the decision.

The 857-acre property in Gambrills, which produced fresh milk for the Navy's midshipmen for almost a century until 1998, was picked as the best site for a feasibility study by state officials keen on building a first-class equestrian venue that would be modeled after the Kentucky Horse Park.

The horse center is envisioned as a regional destination for affluent riders and as a spur to Maryland's horse industry. The state's plans include a museum, a 5,000-seat indoor arena, a visitors center as well as space and facilities for steeplechase, rodeos, jousting, dressage and other equine show competitions.

The Stadium Authority board unanimously chose the Anne Arundel County site over the other finalist, Fair Hill in Cecil County, according to Executive Director Alison L. Asti.

"It was a tough decision because they're both beautiful sites with rolling terrain, and our architects found the project fit well on both," Asti said.

In the end, she said, financial factors clearly pointed to the Naval Academy property, which is being leased by a family-owned organic farm.

Complicating the matter yesterday was the Naval Academy's noncommittal stance. The Academy's spokesman, Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, said that no written proposal had been submitted, but that there had been "informal exchanges."

"We're open to ideas, but we've made no decisions or commitments," he said.

Asti said she will contact Academy officials this week to explain the study phase and open a conversation about the farmland, which under federal law must retain its rural character. She said architects estimated that new construction would occupy less than 1 percent of the property.

One change is already on the authority's drawing board: creating an entrance for vehicles on Route 3, which leads to Interstate 97 a few miles away. A smaller road, Route 175, is now the principal way to the farm, which is about 13 miles from the academy.

Fair Hill, the other contender as the park site, is a 5,613-acre state-owned preserve for equestrian events and other outdoor pursuits. Fair Hill is in the state's northeastern corner, which posed a problem for the seven-member site selection committee, Asti said.

"A lot of the economic benefit would leave Maryland and go to two nearby states, Delaware and Pennsylvania," she said. "The economic impact in Central Maryland gave Anne Arundel County the edge."

Asti noted that Anne Arundel County has about 8,000 hotel and motel rooms, roughly eight times more than Cecil County. And with more hotels under construction near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and in Annapolis, she said, the county is on pace to have 9,200 rooms in 2007.

The direct economic impact of the state-supported 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington is estimated to be more than $100 million a year, Kentucky officials told the Stadium Authority. The park, which was built in 1978, draws about 900,000 visitors a year.

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

The study phase for the Maryland park will take about two months, Asti said. If the Navy and county are ready to sign on to the project, the authority plans to submit enabling legislation in the next General Assembly session. The Stadium Authority's timetable calls for completion in May 2009, she said.

Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer led the proposal, putting forth the dairy farm without support from either the Navy or County Executive Janet S. Owens.

Owens said yesterday that she found the Stadium Authority's decision "ironic," since it is a project she did not seek. She told Asti last week she was willing to wait to see the feasibility study results before she formed a final judgment -- despite Stadium Authority predictions that the project will reap a huge economic harvest.

"I can't say I'm surprised," Owens said. "But it's a good thing to be in this study phase, looking precisely at what the dairy farm can accommodate, what the Navy is willing to do and get to some hard numbers."

Owens said she planned to speak with her friend Nelson K. Bolender, president of the Cecil County commissioners.

"My heart goes out to Nelson Bolender and others who proposed Fair Hill because, unlike me, they really wanted this," Owens said.

Vernon J. Thompson, economic development director for Cecil County, said yesterday: "We certainly wish Annapolis good luck. You could debate the virtues of the decision and the criteria, but the preservation of Fair Hill and the existing footprint are what we do here."

Moyer, who owns a few thoroughbreds in Kentucky, said yesterday that she anticipates a "long negotiation process" with the Naval Academy. She also expressed a love for the equine nature of Anne Arundel County, clear back to Colonial days, when the mark of a gentleman was having a horse.

"I hope we can have a horse museum and that I can be part of that," the mayor said.

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