Supervisors Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) and Tony R. Buffington Jr. (R-Blue Ridge) say they worry that Loudoun’s equine industry is underappreciated as the local economic development headlines tout the latest data center investment and new corporate recruits.
During a community forum Monday night at the Winmill Carriage Museum at Morven Park, they put the focus on boosting the sector of the county’s rural economy that already generates $180 million annually and supports 27,000 jobs. And there’s quite a bit happening.
An eight-member panel of experts from the county economic development and parks departments, the Loudoun Equine Alliance, Rural Economic Development Council, Visit Loudoun, Morven Park and Great Meadow shared their views with an audience of about 60 people.
Economic Development Executive Director Buddy Rizer and Visit Loudoun National Sales Manager Ann Hayes both stressed the importance of the horse industry in their work.
“The rural economy is so important to Loudoun County. It is so unique compared to anyone else,” Rizer said.
“When we’re out selling Loudoun County, the equine industry is always up front,” Hayes said.
Monday’s meeting focused on three initiatives that are expected to pay big dividends—for residents and for the tax base—by strengthening the “equine ecosystem.”
First is to expand the opportunities for area horse owners and riders. Part of that is creating more publicly accessable trails for horse riders (as well as for cyclists and hikers). Several groups are tackling the issue with the goal of creating loop trails that connect communities with points of interest like wineries and historic sites.
At the forefront is the county’s parks department, which manages 3,200 acres of parkland. Director Steve Torpy acknowledged that past efforts to provide horse areas in parks have proven underwhelming, but said the issue has moved up the priority list. The county’s next parks—Lovettsville Community Park and Hal and Bernie Hansen Park near Arcola—will have larger, more practical equine facilities, he said.
But the department also is looking beyond park borders, employing what Torpy described as an “attitude shift.” In the past, he said, county planners didn’t want developers designing undevelopable floodplain land along creeks and streams as part of their required open space packages. That’s changed and park system managers hope to use those corridors to connect communities with trials for hikers and cyclists, perhaps horses as well.
Kelly Foltman, president of the Loudoun Equine Alliance, cited an example of the pent-up demand for such offerings. She said plans to offer a trail ride from Temple Farm Park north of Leesburg to Fabbioli Cellars vineyards is already among the most popular offerings planned as part of next month’s Loudoun Farm Tour.
The groups also are promoting a share-the-road campaign aimed at making Loudoun’s rural, and unpaved, roads safer for riders and cyclists to enjoy.
But the panelists agreed that it will take more than more trail miles to boost the industry—and to keep horse-loving families from moving to communities with more equine amenities. At the top of the list is the development of central equine activity center. It’s an idea that has been championed by Torpy’s staff and horse groups for years, but county supervisors have yet to sign onto the concept or even talk about paying to build one.
Morven Park Executive Director Stephanie Kenyon offered a solution to that long-running stalemate, suggesting a public-private partnership to operate such a center on the Leesburg estate. The 1,000-acre property already has a long tradition of supporting horses and horsemanship. It’s home to the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center and has long been a training ground for top riders and horses. This fall, on Sept. 16, steeplechase racing will return after a long hiatus, and a summer polo league is gearing up. And in the coming weeks, longtime tenant Loudoun Therapeutic Riding will begin construction of its new purpose-built activity center.
Kenyon said the latter project opens opportunities. The center’s large indoor riding arena will be available and could be retrofitted to serve as a venue for other sports and even concerts—or a county equine activity center. “We would be more than happy to work with the county on that,” she said.
The final big piece is the plan to establish a horse quarantine facility at Dulles Airport. A recently completed study confirmed there is a viable business model to support construction of the $18-25 million livestock quarantine facility and industry leaders think it’s possible to have it up and running by 2019. Currently, horses entering the U.S. on the East Coast—about 8,000 a year—must be cleared in New York or Miami. Providing a Mid-Atlantic port of entry would be a huge economic boost to the region, valued at $18 million annually.
Rob Banner, president of Great Meadows in Fauquier County, said such an offering would be key to attracting large international equestrian events and rebuilding the area as the centerpiece of activities such as Olympic training.
Buffington and Higgins stressed that the Board of Supervisors was committed to supporting the horse industry and the broader rural economy to help preserve Loudoun’s undeveloped areas.
“Without those assets, we’re just another suburban county,” Higgins said.