Members of the Maryland Stadium Authority are expected to visit Carroll County tomorrow to evaluate a possible site for an equestrian showcase with a 5,000-seat arena, performing rings, hundreds of horse stalls and a museum.
Carroll, one of six localities vying for the proposed Maryland Horse Park, considers itself "a dark horse, but a willing player" in the effort, said Lawrence F. Twele, county director of economic development.
Cecil, Frederick, Wicomico and Harford counties and the city of Annapolis are also contenders. The Stadium Authority and a selection committee will review all the sites this week and make a decision by mid-September. Officials expect to submit a concept plan with economic impact and cost studies to the General Assembly.
"The final decision depends on various selection criteria," said Alison L. Asti, executive director of the Stadium Authority. "We will give each applicant equal weight."
The authority, originally created to build Baltimore's football and baseball stadiums, has since branched out to other sports projects. The horse park is part of a strategic plan for the equine industry, which generated $1.6 billion for the state last year, according to the Maryland Horse Industry Board. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is "deeply committed" to the project, officials said.
Carroll ranks high statewide in its horse population and its dedication to the industry. According to the Maryland Horse Industry Board, the county is home to nearly 6,000 horses and has nearly 15,000 acres devoted to equine activities. The county also claims major horse-breeding farms and miles of trails on which horseback riders can crisscross parks and reservoir areas.
Still, the county is competing against localities with much larger parcels offering more amenities and access to interstates.
"Cecil County, for example, has 5,600 acres, I-95 and a horse park already there," Twele said. "That's stiff competition, but we are willing to try and jump through the hurdles. This project will be good for Maryland and especially good for the county that lands it."
The official site visit this week will be the first hurdle each contender must clear. The prospective Carroll site is near a highway, which is critical for the stadium authority. But the 600-acre property is the smallest of those proposed. Frederick's site is 603 acres.
"This could be a big boost for Carroll County," said Commissioner Perry L. Jones. "We might not have all the facilities, especially all the hotel rooms, but I don't think any of the proposals have everything the Stadium Authority wants. There are really heavy hitters in this competition, and we are players."
The committee will tour the Neal family farm on Bear Run Road in Taneytown. Part of the property, which the family has offered to sell the county, adjoins state Route 140.
"There really is no sense in getting excited at this point," said Robert C. Neal, who has lived on the farm for 68 years. His son Roger Neal now runs the farming operation. The state would have to purchase the property, for a price to be negotiated.
The location near the highway and between Westminster and Taneytown, as well as the level terrain, made the farm the most appealing of the sites offered in the county, Twele said.
"The visit will give us a better sense of what the site offers and what the state is requiring," he said. "It is just the next hurdle in the process and will help us get into the issues. We are treating this like any other business development deal."
Landing the park would probably require significant investments in infrastructure such as road improvements. The rural location lacks public water and sewer and tourist amenities, particularly hotels, which will be a factor in the state's decision, Twele said.
"I would like to see the stadium authority choose us," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "The area we have offered is nice. If we are chosen, we would have our Economic Development Commission solicit proposals for hotels. We already need those now."
As envisioned by the Stadium Authority, the project would be patterned on the 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, which draws nearly 1 million visitors annually to its horse shows, museum and campground. The Maryland version could have an economic impact in excess of $100 million, mainly in hotel and sales tax revenues, state officials said.
Boost to county
Steven D. Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff and an avid horseman, said the park would be a wonderful boon to the area. He has toured the Lexington park and found it "a fun visit whether you ride or not."
The commissioners are realistic about their chances but determined to get into the game, said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.
"I would be really surprised if we get it, but we definitely want to be in the running," Minnich said. "Our bid shows we are a player in the state economic development effort. Making this a horse park will make sure we hold onto our agricultural and rural land and support the horse industry, which is important in Carroll County."