Tally Ho, Cecil County: New State “Horse Park” Plans to Promote Fair Hill, Tourism
Maryland state government is considering investing money, expertise and promotional support to enhance the equine industry and tourism in Cecil County through a new, scaled-down horse park concept that would provide enhanced marketing and promotional campaigns for three locations in the state, including Fair Hill in Cecil County.
But even as state officials outlined preliminary concepts, there were already rifts evident among Cecil County commissioners.
The new proposal, outlined at Tuesday’s commissioners’ worksession and in earlier emails to county officials, comes at a time that the Fair Hill Training Center—home for thoroughbred racehorses such as Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and recent Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags– have brought international recognition to the county and the unique, pastoral quality of Fair Hill. To capitalize upon that newfound recognition could bring substantial economic benefits to the county. (Union Rags is soon to be moved out of the county to Kentucky to stand at stud after the recent announcement of his retirement.)
But the training center for world-class thoroughbred horses is but a small part of the sprawling Fair Hill complex, which features riding trails for amateur equestrians and hosts steeplechase races several times a year on a separate track.
In 2006, Maryland state officials considered creation of a large “horse park” at the state-owned Fair Hill park and natural resources area in northeastern Cecil County, adjacent to the Delaware state line– only to be greeted by adamant local opposition led by a small group of nearby Cecil County homeowners, as well as some pleasure riders in the horse community. The initial proposal included plans for a large horse show arena, parking lots for visitors and related infrastructure.
Eventually, the state picked an Anne Arundel county location—after noting that Cecil County lacked adequate hotel services to serve equine event tourists. But a variety of problems with that other location led to abandonment of the plan and a state silence on the entire horse park issue for several years.
But now, the state Horse Industry Board and the Maryland Stadium Authority are looking to resurrect a scaled-down concept that would spread out money to support equine /tourism activities at several locations around the state, including Cecil County.
Ross Peddicord, who became executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board in early 2011, acknowledged that previous leadership of the board had advanced an ambitious proposal that was not supported by community residents. But now, the board is ready to release a new preliminary study that would re-direct efforts to promote the equine industry in the state into a marketing and promotion approach to draw tourism and business attention to equine facilities that already exist.
Documents and emails submitted to the county outline in very broad terms a new, revised concept for a three-site approach. The state Board is conducting a “Phase 1 Maryland Horse Park Viability Study,” that is now just in an “exploratory” discussion phase.
According to the documents, the “old plan” called for construction of one large $120 million horse park facility. But now, the concept plan calls for smaller-scale support for at least three equine-related facilities that already exist: Fair Hill in Cecil County, the Baltimore County Ag Center, and the Prince Georges County Equestrian Center.
The new plan would “link” those three existing facilities into a “statewide network of sites,” according to an email to county officials sent by Peddicord. The concept would to be to have those three sites work together on equine matters, “like the campus system of the University of Maryland.”
Among the concepts are to promote the existing Prince George’s County facility, which already has a large arena, for new national or international equine events; promote Fair Hill for three-day equine events such as the steeplechase and other events it already hosts; and expanding the Baltimore County ag center for equine education and displays.
“We really need an indoor arena,” said Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5). Such a facility would allow events to be held year-round in Cecil County, he said, and could be scaled way down from earlier proposals that were so large the facility could have hosted “rock concerts.” He said any facilities developed under the new proposal should be only for equine events.
But Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) immediately rejected that idea, saying that an “indoor arena was the biggest concern” of area residents who opposed the previous proposal. She said she has discussed the future of Fair Hill with “constituents” who she said felt there must be a “guarantee” that any new proposals “don’t leave a footprint” on the property and would not be “invasive.”
Peddicord didn’t get into the debate and took a conciliatory approach, saying the county can do whatever its leaders agree upon, even if it is just brochures, website and tourism promotion of existing equine facilities and events.
The horse board will seek feedback from the three affected counties and hopes to move forward with the next phase of its studies to develop more detailed plans, Peddicord said.