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Cecil neck and neck with Annapolis for new horse park


The race among counties to house what is expected to be one of the premier horse parks in the country is coming to the finish line and Cecil is still in the running.

The Maryland Stadium Authority, which is overseeing the site selection and construction for what is being called a Disneyland for horses, is expected to announce its decision in about two weeks.

Last week, the state narrowed the contenders to Cecil and Anne Arundel counties.

Four other jurisdictions - Harford, Carroll, Frederick and Wicomico counties - either dropped out or were eliminated during the week when the authority announced its short list for the final selection.

Vernon J. Thompson, Cecil County's economic development director and the leader of its promotion team, likes the county's chances.

"Yeah, I'm optimistic," he said. "When I look at our Fair Hill site I can't believe that it will not ultimately be the preferred site.

"No. 1," Thompson said, "it has 5,600 acres. That's a lot of acres. That's 8 3/4 square miles. That's bigger than the city of Annapolis. It's bigger than Arbutus or Sykesville."

The property is tucked into the northeastern section of the state, where Maryland borders Pennsylvania and Delaware.

"We get 600,000 visitors a year to Fair Hill, and the reason nobody notices is that the property is so big," Thompson said. The existing equestrian center hosts more than 130 events a year.

Thompson expressed his hope that the existing infrastructure at Fair Hill will carry a lot of weight as the authority moves toward a decision.

"We already have an existing show ring, a turf track, a number of stalls and barns, pastures for horse jumping events and 75 miles of horse riding trails.

"And it is all state-owned land," he said. "We are in the role of asking the state to consider its own assets and not put money into buying private land."

The Anne Arundel site is near Annapolis. It includes a combination of the 1,032 acres at the state-owned Crownsville Hospital site; the 58-acre state-owned Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds; the 654-acre Annapolis-owned Waterworks Park, located near Interstate 97 and Route 178; as well as the 875-acre Naval Academy dairy farm.

"The two proposals selected for the short list offer unique attributes that would make the horse park a success," said Alison L. Asti, executive director of the Stadium Authority.

She said these include:

Terrain and configuration suitable for the proposed equestrian uses.

More than 500 contiguous acres.

Resourceful use of existing public lands.

Proximity to major instate highways.

An adequate number of nearby hotels and restaurants.

As proposed by the Stadium Authority, the horse park would include a 500-seat enclosed arena and six to 12 outdoor showrooms.

Plans call for an outdoor amphitheater for equestrian competition, festivals, fairs, trade shows and concerts.

There would be boarding facilities for horses, kennels for dogs, trails for riding and areas for steeplechase events.

Other features would include a concession center, a visitors center and a campground that would feature many of the comforts of home - bathhouses, electric and water hookups, phone and Internet access. A museum would highlight the state's rich equestrian heritage.

Thompson said that Fair Hill is already home to several prestigious national equestrian organizations including the National Steeplechase Association, the Thoroughbred Racing Association and the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau.

"It's the ideal site," said Thompson. It is located in the center of the Mid-Atlantic horse country and is just off of I-95 between Baltimore and Philadelphia.

There could be a big payoff for the winner. The authority has said the park would be modeled on the 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park, which in 2003 pumped $164 million into the local economy and annually draws about 900,000 visitors.

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