Consultant Outlines Fair Hill Horse Park Plan; Improvements, New Arena Could Cost $24 Million

August 31, 2015

A long-awaited consultant’s report issued on Monday outlines a multi-part strategy to improve the Fair Hill equine facilities, including a new arena with grandstands to be built in the county fairgrounds area, a visitor’s center, and VIP covered seating in the current steeplechase area. The proposals would cost up to $23.9 million if all five segments were completed.

The report was prepared by Crossroads Consulting Services and presented to the Maryland Stadium Authority and the Maryland Horse Industry Board (MHIB.) MHIB has been trying for many years to develop a “horse park” but in recent years has backed away from a single, new multi-use facility. Instead, the board is seeking to promote multiple equine facilities that already exist, with enhanced marketing and facility improvements to promote equine-related tourism and economic development.

The earlier concept for a major single ‘horse park’ drew strong opposition from many local residents, fearful that the peaceful and multi-use aspects of Fair Hill would be overwhelmed. The state eventually settled on an Anne Arundel county location, at the old Naval Academy dairy farm, but local opposition and high costs scuttled that plan. After that debacle, state equine industry advocates shifted gears to the concept of multiple sites with different kinds of equine facilities that would play to their own strengths as part of a “horse park system.”

Fair Hill, which is owned by the state of Maryland, is a 5,600 acre park and natural resources area that includes over 75 miles of hiking and riding trails. The site is home to the annual county fair and hosts two major equestrian events—the Fair Hill International three-day event and the Fair Hill Steeplechase Memorial Day races that attract national competitors and visitors to the area.

The proposed plan designates Fair Hill as a “field event venue,” while designating the Prince George’s County Equestrian Center as a “show and expo venue.” Only those two sites were studied as they were considered the premiere facilities in the state for such equine programs. The Prince George’s proposal includes nine segments that could cost up to $45 million if all were implemented.

The consultant’s plan is just a concept proposal and does not identify the sources of funds that might be needed to implement the plans. The proposal will face review by the state stadium authority, the MFIB and “stakeholders” in the equine industry and local communities.

Many of the consultant’s suggestions call for enhancing and repairing existing facilities at Fair Hill, from renovating the aging stables area where visitors can learn to ride a horse to tearing down some rickety grandstand seating and repairing riding trails that have been overgrown by vegetation. But the big-ticket items focus on attracting new equestrian field events to the facility that could draw larger crowds and tourism dollars to the county.

The most costly segment of the plan is improvements to the “steeplechase track” area, costing up to $10.3 million. That initiative includes demolishing three aging grandstand sections while improving the main grandstand area, to include addition of glassed-in VIP seating. A temporary seating and tent area, to host special events and receptions, would also be provided. Improvements would also be made to the steeplechase track itself.

Proposed improvements to the county fair section of the site, estimated to cost up to $7.7 million, include a new show jumping arena and a new outdoor arena. The consultants suggested that some of the Fair Hill International competitions could be re-located to the new arenas in the fair section of the property. Demolition of some aging barns and improvements to paving were also suggested.

Improvements to the current riding stables, with aging barns and paddock areas, were proposed, at a cost of up to $2 million. A new visitor’s center, to house administrative and security offices as well as serve as a welcome center outlining the site’s offerings, was proposed, at a cost of up to $1.5 million.

The plan also called for improvements of the “field event zone,” including a cross-country course for equine “driving” events and improvements to riding trails, at a cost of up to $2.1 million.

While the consultants calculate the costs would ultimately be more than offset by the economic and tax revenue benefits of tourism, event organizers’ fees and expenditures, and boosted job creation. But the study acknowledges that Cecil County lacks strong restaurant and hotel facilities in the Fair Hill area and tourism dollars may ‘seep’ into adjacent Delaware and Pennsylvania.

(The report did not study or suggest any changes in the area of Fair Hill that has become a world-class thoroughbred horse training center, which has been home to such horse stars as Animal Kingdom. Trainers’ barns are located on land leased from the state in a separate area of the park.)

Cecil County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) said he had seen the report and was taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude on what comes next. “They didn’t ask us for any money and we didn’t offer any,” he said.

“The ball is in the Stadium Authority’s court,” Hodge said. That agency and the state Department of Natural Resources, which is the official owner of the Fair Hill property, will have to develop a plan and set priorities, he added.

Some of the report’s suggestions are improvements and repairs to existing facilities at the site that horsemen and women have been suggesting for years, such as stable renovations and improving riding trails throughout the park.

“I’m keeping an open mind until we see where this is heading,” Hodge said. “I don’t want people to jump the gun and get upset.”

[UPDATE: Ross Peddicord, executive director of the MHIB, said in an exclusive interview with CECIL TIMES, that the consultant’s report was “a starting point” and the next steps would be to open a “dialogue” with the equine community on their priorities for enhancing and improving Fair Hill.

“It’s just a study,” Peddicord said. Changes in the county fair zone at the facilty “may not be feasible,” he said, but many other improvements might be embraced by the local community and “we need a comprehensive plan going forward.”

“We need to plow through the report in a very level-headed way,” Peddicord said, and focus on suggestions on how to make Fair Hill “a showcase” for equine activities.

“We need to roll up our sleeves and think about the future,” he added. The consultant’s report is “thought provoking, and hopefully a jumping-off point” for discussions on the best future for Fair Hill. ]

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