The Maryland Stadium Authority chose an 875-acre site near Annapolis yesterday to be the home of a state-run equestrian park that officials want to open by 2009 to boost the region's horse industry.
The park, which would host such equestrian competitions as dressage and jumping, would include a 5,000-seat arena, an outdoor amphitheater, six to 12 outdoor show rings and 800 to 1,200 stalls.
The site at the U.S. Naval Academy Dairy Farm in Gambrills, northwest of Annapolis, was selected over a bid from Cecil County in the state's northeastern corner.
State officials said Annapolis city leaders' bid won, in large part, because the site is near several major roads, hotels and Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Over the next two months, architects and economic consultants will calculate construction costs and how much money the park might bring to the state, according to the stadium authority's executive director, Alison L. Asti. Then, she said, the authority will propose a bill to the General Assembly during its next legislative session to seek bond financing.
The stadium authority will have to negotiate a long-term lease of the dairy farm, which is owned by the Naval Academy. Although until recently it supplied milk to the Brigade of Midshipmen, the farm's most famous inhabitants are Bill XXXI and Bill XXXII, the goats that are used as the Navy sports mascot.
"We are certainly encouraged by the [state's] interest in the long-term leasing of the dairy farm," said Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, academy spokesman, noting that the school is legally obliged to keep using it for an agricultural purpose.
Maryland officials hope that the park will bolster the state's $1.6 billion horse industry at a time when it is struggling. Last week, the owners of the state's two largest racetracks presented a plan to drastically scale back the sport, including reducing the number of racing days at Baltimore's historic Pimlico track from 60 days a year to 26.
Asti would not predict the proposed equestrian park's cost or economic impact. But she said the project, which has nothing to do with horse racing, would be "equivalent or better than" the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. The Kentucky park receives about $1 million in state subsidies a year and generates $163 million in economic activity, as well as $17.7 million in state and local taxes, she said.
The Maryland park is likely to compete with two horse centers operating in Virginia: the privately run, 1,200-acre Morven Park International Equestrian Center near Leesburg and the state-owned, 600-acre Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, in the Shenandoah Valley.
Officials from both Virginia parks have been watching the Maryland initiative closely, with some saying that the competition could bolster the horse industry in both states and others saying that the Maryland park could reduce the number of horse exhibitors willing to travel to the Virginia parks.
Both the Annapolis and Cecil County proposals faced local opposition. Some Cecil residents were worried about crowds, trash and noise; in Annapolis, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens (D) gave the plan lukewarm support, saying it could worsen traffic and create more pressure for development in the area.
The debate was resolved when Annapolis chose to focus its bid on the dairy farm rather than on a site closer to Crownsville.
Asti said the local arguments were "not a key factor." Rather, the authority's board was worried that if the park were in Cecil, its economic impact would be dispersed out of the state because visitors would be more likely to go to Pennsylvania and Delaware to eat, sleep and shop.
Anne Arundel horse enthusiasts and officials said they were delighted by the decision.
"I'm jumping up and down, let me tell you," said Christy Clagett, a farmer and thoroughbred breeder from southern Anne Arundel. Clagett was hopeful that the park could slow growth by prompting more horse breeders to buy out farms now being sold to developers and giving farmers a market for hay and straw.
"It will be a win-win, in my opinion, because we get the open space [and] because we get the farmers to stay farming," Clagett said.
"The horse was real important in our early history, and it's only appropriate that the horse is coming back," said Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer (D), who owns a thoroughbred horse. "We're coming full circle."