Horse park cost detailed in report

Stadium authority says $114.2 million


Establishing a horse park in western Anne Arundel County would cost $114.2 million, according to a long-awaited study released today that state officials hope will boost support for the stalled project.

The report by the Maryland Stadium Authority found that the horse park on 857 acres of rolling farmland in Gambrills, owned by the Navy, will draw nearly 800,000 visitors each year, generating an annual economic benefit to the county of more than $104 million.

The facilities would include a visitors center, an equestrian/agriculture museum, an indoor climate-controlled equestrian show ring with 2,500 fixed seats and stables for 840 horses.

The state would build a 3-plus-mile cross-country course, a 1-mile turf steeplechase course with a 1,500-seat grandstand and a recreational-vehicle park for overnight guests.

Recently added features include several stormwater ponds and four "polocrosse" (lacrosse on horseback) fields, which would be available for community soccer.

In an interview yesterday, Alison L. Asti, the authority's executive director, emphasized keeping the pristine dairy farm free from encroachment. The farm was used to produce milk for Naval Academy midshipmen for nearly a century until the late 1990s.

"This will be a parklike venue that residents could enjoy for the long term, rather than development and cars," she said.

Asti and other state officials met yesterday with County Executive Janet S. Owens, whose opposition to the project prompted Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to pull a bond bill for it this year.

Owens has said the county can't afford to contribute, given the costs of military expansion at Fort Meade. Based on the $114 million price tag, the county's burden could be as high as $35 million.

She also has expressed worries about the horse park's impact on Route 3 traffic and on two environmentally sensitive watersheds that run through the Navy property. One of them, the Jabez Branch, is the last native brook- trout stream in Maryland.

State officials did not press Owens for a commitment, financial or otherwise, during the meeting.

"The day was not the day to discuss dollars," Owens said. "They know my misgivings."

The executive said she again pitched Fair Hill, the Cecil County property that was a finalist for the horse park.

Greg Massoni, an Ehrlich spokesman, said it's too early to say whether the governor would become involved in negotiating a funding compromise.

For five years, state officials have aimed to build a horse park similar to one subsidized by Kentucky to capitalize on Maryland's horse culture and heritage and to reap out-of-state dollars by creating a regional equestrian center.

The Maryland study, which has been delayed since March, found that Anne Arundel County stands to gain about $2.3 million in annual taxes, mostly because of the influx of visitors with disposable income to spend on hotels, meals and other service amenities.

"We've done a very extensive survey of the [recreational] equestrian economy," said Gary A. McGuigan, project executive for the authority.

Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College in Massachusetts, said out-of-state park patrons would be critical.

"You have to make a clear analysis of the demand and determine if that demand is coming from inside the state," he said. "If the demand is coming from inside the state, ... they will just be spending at the horse track rather than at some other venue."

More than 1,500 jobs could result from the park, the study says, with 50 full-time, year-round jobs on the site and the rest in service industries.

Asti added that the park would pay for itself after 30 years. Yesterday, she also briefed Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, a horse-park proponent.

"I found it amazing, myself, that there is no admission fee," Moyer said last night. "It's a free park."

But not everyone is sold.

"Can our state afford that much money for an entertainment center for horses? That's my concern," said Edwin R. Fry, managing partner of Maryland Sunrise Farm LLC, which operates an organic farm on the Navy property. Sunrise is among six parties to submit expressions of interest to use the land.

The Greater Crofton Council, an umbrella organization representing more than 30 community groups in western Anne Arundel County, does not have a position on the proposed horse park, but it favors freezing all development on Route 3 - which would include the horse park.

"Personally, it should stay an organic farm or become a regional county park," said President Torrey C. Jacobsen Jr. "We are in desperate need for parkland. The people who surround it don't want a horse park."

A Navy official cautioned yesterday that nothing should be taken for granted about the site's eventual use - especially since it is governed by a legal requirement that the parcel remain rural and agricultural in character.

He was quick to note that the study contained no specific formula for a financial settlement for leasing the property. A formal request for bids will be issued, possibly this summer.

In an apparent overture to the Navy, the report notes that Bill, the goat that is the Navy game mascot, and his understudy would remain in residence on the dairy farm.

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