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Cecil County’s Fair Hill seeks to attract national equestrian event

In roughly two weeks Maryland’s horse industry will be focused on the Preakness Stakes, but equine enthusiasts are ramping up efforts to bring another high-profile event to Maryland.

Groups such as the Maryland Horse Industry Board, Fair Hill International and the Maryland Sports Commission back a bid to host a four-star equestrian event — the nation’s second competition at that level — to Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area in Cecil County. But landing the event will require a sizable investment boosters hope comes from a mix of private and public finds to upgrade the equestrian facility.

“Our expectation is we’ve got to build smart, grow smart and deliver a world-class venue that can evolve over time,” Terry Hasseltine, executive director of Maryland Sports, said.

Landing the event entails making millions of dollars in upgrades, funded via public and private partnership, to the state-owned Fair Hill. A 2015 study found the first phase of upgrades, which are needed to host the four-star event, involves improvements to the turf course, grandstands, timing tower and building pedestrian tunnels under Route 273 at a cost between $8 and $10 million.

The Maryland Stadium Authority Board approved moving forward with engineering and design for the project last week using $100,000 from a bond bill passed by the General Assembly and $250,000 raised privately.

Backers are pursuing those improvements regardless of whether the venue is selected by the United States Equestrian Federation, and eventually the International Federation for Equestrian Sports, to host a four-star event.

Supporters acknowledge hosting a four-star event means the venue hits 55 percent to 60 percent of the needed event portfolio right off the bat, which makes reaching goals for the upgraded facility more manageable.

“In all fairness the study showed that the development over time, yeah it would get there, but the four-star created some fuel, and some ability to put some gas in our car that’s helped us,” Hasseltine said.

Cecil County already hosts a three-star event at Fair Hill, which limits its economic impact. Also the jump up to the four-star, which brings the highest caliber riders and horses in the sport, is like jumping up from hosting a smaller college bowl game to the NFL’s Super Bowl.

Maryland’s bid for the event was accepted by the national equestrian federation about a year ago along with five others. That list has been reduced to Fair Hill and the Great Meadows facility in Virginia. The U.S. federation will make its decision in July and the international group will make a final approval in October or November.

The timeline for the four-star event would be to host the first three-day competition at Fair Hill in the fall of 2019. Backers say the event by its fourth of fifth year should draw more than 80,000 people and produce an economic impact of $20 million to $30 million.  The only other four-star event in the nation is the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, which hosted 75,000 attendees and 31,000 fans on cross-country day alone in 2015.

Kerry Tan, an assistant professor of economics at Loyola University, Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business, said he remains skeptical of the economic impact claimed by boosters of all sporting venues.

Economic impact estimates are reached by consultants, he said, who base the anticipated effect on the number of projected attendees multiplied by the money each person is expected to spend. That figure is then increased by a “multiplier effect” to reach an economic impact estimate.

“The idea is that you see the estimated economic impact, and in a lot of cases a lot of those impact numbers are overstated. Based on some crazy assumptions they’ve made to get that number in the first place,” Tan said.

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