Council hears horse park idea

Enthusiast urges county officials to revive plans for facility in Havre de Grace


As Anne Arundel County officials spar over a proposed state horse park there, some in Harford are calling for revival of the plans to build one in Havre de Grace.

Robert L. Johnson, a Havre de Grace resident, told the County Council last week that "the time is ripe" for Harford, which lost in its bid to develop the state project, to establish a horse park. Johnson, 80, sits on the board of directors for the Maryland Thoroughbred Racing Foundation Inc. and the Maryland Horse Park Inc., though he said he was not representing those organizations in his presentation.

"The county already owns the most ideal site in the state - it's Swan Harbor Farms," Johnson told the council. "The land is more than adequate and is a very attractive venue for a [horse] park, as I envision it."

In November, the Maryland Stadium Authority selected a former dairy farm in Gambrills as the proposed site for a venue for national and international equestrian events. Plans call for a steeplechase course and a 2,500-seat arena, along with several show rings and hundreds of stalls.

But the Navy, which owns the land, has been noncommittal, and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens has not endorsed the project. An environmental group has also raised concerns, and county officials said their share of the cost of the $100 million project could be too high.

The Havre de Grace effort also has had its struggles. In 2004, lawmakers rejected a $400,000 bond bill that would have helped finance a $1.2 million horse racing museum, equine retirement center and horse park near the waterfront town that would have highlighted the area's glory days as a horse racing destination. County Executive David R. Craig, then mayor of Havre de Grace, was a key player in that effort.

In its heyday, the Havre de Grace Racetrack, or "The Graw" as it was called, was considered one of horse racing's gems and lured some of the biggest names in racing, including Seabiscuit, Citation, Man o' War and War Admiral.

Johnson, who has sat on several county budget advisory panels, said he thinks the county should build a training center and museum that includes a retirement center, a restaurant, campgrounds, an amphitheater and a memorial park and gardens with statues of famous horses.

Many of those components are similar to the stadium authority's wishes for its state horse park, but Johnson said he's not looking to woo the state.

"My intention is to get the county to do it, whether the state does anything about it or not," he said in a phone interview.

Harford officials want to see how the Anne Arundel situation plays out before pursuing a similar project, said Melissa McNutt, a project development associate in the county economic development office. They would welcome another chance to develop the state project, she said.

"We're still waiting to hear what the state is actually going to do," McNutt said. "We don't need two Maryland horse parks, though that's not to say something similar couldn't be created on a smaller scale."

Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, a Democrat from Joppa, expressed enthusiasm for Johnson's proposal Tuesday. He recalled similar horse parks in other states, such as Kentucky, and the excitement that those facilities generate.

Without actively seeking stall reservations last year, Johnson said, the thoroughbred foundation received 500 applications for stabling horses, and barns in Fair Hill, in Cecil County, and Delaware Park are unable to fulfill a significant number of requests. He said the $20 million to $25 million annual cost of his proposed facility would be covered by stall rentals and fees.

"Our location could fill part of the Delaware need," Johnson told the council.

The site could also become the venue for the Horses in the Sun program, or HITS, a six-week horse event that involves jumping and other horse riding and attracts thousands of visitors.

"The county can do this," he said. "It's a minimal amount of money and will generate money."

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