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Maryland horse park idea comes around track again

Maryland is revisiting the idea of building a state horse park — designed to boost tourism and small businesses — after plans to construct one were dropped four years ago.

Officials from the Maryland Horse Industry Board, the Department of Business and Economic Development and the Maryland Stadium Authority have been meeting to work on a request for information and a viability study for a state horse park that would take up about 500 acres of land. That land would be used for competitive riding events, steeplechase, show ring sports, dressage, polo matches and other activities to bring in visitors and boost horse industry tourism efforts.

But the officials said they are proceeding cautiously after original plans for the park were scrapped and the economy sank. The stadium authority, along with the Horse Industry Board, DBED and the state Department of Agriculture, first sought a site for a state horse park in 2005.

A center would bring in big money for all types of businesses that could feed off the horse show industry, said Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Alison L. Asti, who was executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority during the original planning of the horse park.

Asti said she’s seen how much it costs to compete at a horse park in another state. A recent trip to the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, Va., for an international competition cost around $2,000 for her daughter to compete, she said. Horse industry members’ money goes primarily to hotels, restaurants, retail centers, farriers, tack shops and hay farmers, Asti said.

“The park would even help stabilize the market for farm-related things, which is better than the state buying up that land [to preserve it],” Asti said. “It’s a big industry.”

In a 2006 feasibility study by the Maryland Stadium Authority, it was estimated that a park would bring $9.3 million annually to local and state governments. Hotel taxes would create $1.7 million of that, while sales tax would make $5 million for the state.

On top of that, it would keep Maryland’s horse-showing industry money from going to other states, said J. Robert Burk, executive director of the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education and Economics Advisory Board for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Burk was executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board from 2003 through last year.

“Currently with the facilities that are here, we cannot even host state championships for a number of our own sports organizations,” Burk said. “You can imagine if the state quarter horse association or the state Arabian association have to hold their championships in Virginia.”

It was because of the interest of the state’s horse industry members in 1999 that the issue first arose, Burk said. Five years later, the Maryland Horse Industry Board began to actively pursue the idea of a horse park, and garnered support from then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and then-state Secretary of the Department of Agriculture Lewis R. Riley.

Anne Arundel County’s U.S. Naval Academy Dairy Farm was chosen by the state from among six possible locations. But after strong local opposition, the proposal was dropped in 2007.

After a horse industry forum was held last year, horse owners said that they still wanted a state park, and it became No. 1 on the industry’s wish list, said Maryland Horse Industry Board Executive Director Ross Peddicord.

The horse park was part of a strategic plan for the state’s equine industry, which is worth $5.6 billion, according to the Horse Industry Board’s 2010 Equine Census. The value of all the horses in Maryland was just over $746 million, up 10 percent from 2002.

The state would have patterned the project on the 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., which draws nearly 1 million visitors annually to its horse shows, museum and campground. Board members and state officials visited Kentucky’s park last year, and since then, government officials including Department of Agriculture Secretary Earl F. “Buddy” Hance and Gov. Martin O’Malley have expressed interest in seeing a horse park finally happen.

A viability study would be the first step in figuring out if a horse park would make enough money to warrant being a good investment. Peddicord said that he hopes to determine how much a study would cost and how it will be paid for in the upcoming weeks.

After the viability study is conducted, industry members and officials from government agencies would determine how the park would be paid for.  Some of the questions to be asked in the study would include how the park could be viable with a down economy and if a down-sized version of a horse park would be more feasible to build, Peddicord said.

“The process will work,” Peddicord said. “These big projects take time. I am very confident the proposals will come forth and all will be hashed out.”

Colby Ferguson, business development specialist for agriculture at the Frederick County Office of Economic Development, worked on Frederick County’s 2006 bid for the horse park. The county offered property at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg as a site for the center. Although Frederick County lost the bid, Ferguson said the county hasn’t lost interest.

“If they do come out with it again, we’ll probably play the game. It was kind of a fun project,” Ferguson said.