Sunlight streams through the windows of the immaculate barns at the Andover Equestrian Center, lighting up the freshly painted walls, new flooring and sliding stall doors. But the stalls stand empty.
It's close to two years since the horses stabled at the Linthicum facility were moved out so the county could renovate the riding complex and look for a new manager.
With construction work nearly complete, county officials say they are about to begin searching for a center operator and hope to fill the job by the end of the year.
That's welcome news for horse lovers who fought the closing of the center. They doubted they'd ever see it open again.
"We thought they were stringing us along," said Donna Umberger, a leader for 18 years with Linthicum 4-H Hi-Riders, which ran clinics and horse shows at the center.
"The barns are absolutely gorgeous; they're state of the art," she said of the renovations. "We just want to put horses in there."
The center is on 25 acres surrounded by commercial development, residential subdivisions and the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Umberger calls the property "a little piece of heaven."
"It's a perfect little place that you wouldn't expect to find four miles from a major city," said Carol Kaschner, a 4-H club leader for 20 years.
County officials closed the center in January 1998 because they said the private operator had mismanaged it since 1992, falling behind on liability insurance payments and failing to provide regular financial reports.
Thirty horses were moved out, and programs such as a county-run therapeutic-riding clinic for disabled youths were relocated.
Announcement of the center's closing angered and saddened 4-H members and area residents who packed community meetings to demand answers of county recreation officials.
"When 230 people showed up for a little town meeting that usually gets eight to 10 people, the county knew they had some reckoning to do," Umberger said of the Linthicum Shipley Improvement Association meeting in January 1998. "It was totally devastating, and it tore the kids apart."
"We were one big, happy family, and they broke up the family," she said.
The county began a $250,000 overhaul of the equestrian center in June of last year. The century-old barns got an updated electrical system, new concrete floors and sliding stall doors. Up to 19 stalls will be available. Boarded-up windows were uncovered so light now streams through.
"It was dark and dingy with cobwebs all over the place," said Jay A. Cuccia, chief of special facilities for the county Department of Recreation and Parks.
Other improvements include a new training ring adjacent to the show ring, repaired fencing, seeded and fertilized pastures and a new entrance.
County officials had hoped to reopen the center six months ago, but Cuccia said transitions associated with the new county administration and a new recreation and parks director slowed the project.
He said plans to renovate the historic house on the property, which is about 100 years old and was once a caretaker's quarters, have been put off because that work could delay the center opening by six to eight months.
"My main goal is to get the center reopened and get folks who want to board horses back in there," Cuccia said. "Then we'll have time to work on the house."
In the past year, more than 50 people have inquired about operating the equestrian center, Cuccia said. He plans to advertise for the position in local papers and equestrian journals. The county wants a center operator who will sign a five-year contract and develop a plan to run the facility.
"We're looking for someone who not only has a background in caring for horses, but someone who has had some previous business experience, who knows how to run a small business, because that's basically what it's going to be," Cuccia said.
"We're trying to let them be as creative as possible to generate as many sources of revenue as possible," Cuccia said. "The county is not looking to make money on the center. We'll be very happy if the center can break even or even make a modest profit."
He said county officials want advice from 4-H leaders and other members of the equestrian center advisory board before selecting the new operator.
"Probably the most important thing is to get the right person in there," Kaschner said.
Although horse enthusiasts are looking forward to the center's reopening, they still have some concerns about the new facility.
Umberger is worried the new horse boarding rates may be too high. Cuccia said the new rates are likely to be in line with the market rate in the area.
When it closed, Umberger said, the center charged $230 to $250 a month. Other metropolitan area stables charge as much as $450 a month.
"It could be this beautiful showplace that nobody can afford to move into except the rich, and we're not rich," Umberger said. "We have backyard ponies; we don't have horses that cost $10,000."
Pub Date: 9/07/99