A proposal by Maryland officials to build a horse center for dressage and other equestrian events could mean more competition for similar centers in Leesburg and Lexington, but it also could benefit the region's horse industry as a whole, Virginia horse industry leaders say.
The park, as envisioned by the Maryland Horse Industry Board and the Maryland Stadium Authority, would occupy about 500 acres and provide competition rings, stalls and possibly a museum to keep big-spending horse breeders, owners and riders in the state.
Maryland has committed a total of $250,000 for feasibility and economic impact studies, to come this year.
Virginia has two such centers. The privately run 1,200-acre Morven Park Equestrian Center lies close to Leesburg and includes indoor and outdoor arenas, a steeplechase course, carriage obstacles and cross-country courses. The 600-acre, state-owned Virginia Horse Center is in Lexington, a three-hour drive from Washington, in the Shenandoah Valley. The center includes a 4,000-seat indoor coliseum, a cross-country course and a carriage-driving course, 18 show rings and arenas, plus a museum.
The Lexington center's executive director, John F.R. Scott, said a horse park in Maryland could become a competitor, particularly if it were within 250 miles of his center.
Because of show industry rules, being that close "would limit its ability to attract similar shows as the ones held here," he said. "If it was farther away, it would complement the existing horse show schedule. Either way, they would become a competitor for some of the same exhibitors [people who show horses]."
Andrea Heid, program manager for the Virginia Horse Industry Board, said the interest in a new horse park in Maryland underscores the growth of the equine industry as a whole. About 1.9 million of the nation's 6.9 million horses participate in horse shows each year, she said. In spite of some concerns about possible scheduling conflicts, she said, horse enthusiasts would welcome a new venue.
"People will go wherever the best facilities are," Heid said. "People are very mobile when it comes to participating in horse events -- they will go to those facilities that offer them the best opportunity to show their horse."
Maryland recently invited communities to express interest in hosting such a venue, and three have responded: Harford and Cecil counties, north of Baltimore, and Annapolis, said Alison L. Asti, executive director of the Stadium Authority. Proposals are due by June 30, she said.
"The horse board really sees this facility as being capable of hosting an event on the scale of the Olympics," said J. Robert Burk, executive director of the board, which is part of the state's Agriculture Department.
Will O'Keefe, executive director of Morven Park, said he would welcome a horse center in Maryland. He sees development, rather than competition from another center, as the chief worry to the horse industry.
"As development is putting pressure on many areas, places for people to pursue equestrian activities will be in that much more demand as opportunities shrink in other areas," O'Keefe said. "A facility like this would probably be very good for the state of Maryland and good for the mid-Atlantic region. I can't see that it would be a negative impact on Virginia."
Cost is sure to be an issue with any new facility in Maryland, as it has been for the Virginia Horse Center, which has sought and received a great deal of private as well as state support.
"It's not going to be cheap. We're talking in the millions of dollars," said Maryland's Burk.
The price tag, though, is not yet clear. "My bet is by August we will have a firm ballpark figure," Burk added, stressing that "the cost of things will go up over time."
Virginia owns its horse center, for which it has paid most of the construction debt and oversees operations. However, the state does not fund operations -- operating shortfalls and capital improvements are funded by the private Virginia Horse Center Foundation.
The center, which opened in 1988 but has been significantly expanded, is now worth about $20 million to $21 million and operates on an annual budget of $4.5 million. A therapeutic riding center to help disabled children and adults develop their motor skills is scheduled to open next year, paid for by a million-dollar federal community development block grant that will also fund several smaller projects, Scott said.
Horse center advocates note the local business such venues bring in.
"There's a lot of offshoot businesses involved in the industry as well," Scott said, citing enterprises involved in horse feed, trailers, tack and veterinary medicine.
A similar center, the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, accounted for $164 million in direct and indirect revenue to the state and localities in 2003, Kentucky officials said.
Even so, the park's operating budget has always been subsidized by the state. "We're striving to be, down the road, 100 percent self-sufficient," said Lisa Jackson, the park's marketing and public relations director. "But we're not there."
Scott said that although the horse show industry is still growing, it is possible that the number of horse parks could reach a saturation point for the level of interest.
The prospective Maryland center, he said, has a long way to go before becoming reality, particularly since its location has yet to be determined.
"This is in its infancy -- site selection is a long and competitive process," Scott said.