Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Horse Park for Aiken?

On Wednesday afternoon January 21, word spread like a line of flame through the horse community: there was to be an open forum at the University of South Carolina Aiken Convocation Center, to discuss the construction of a large-scale, international-quality horse park in the city. Numerous horsemen from the show, event, hunt and driving worlds joined realtors and other people connected with Aiken’s equestrian world. The meeting room suddenly didn’t have quite enough chairs.

“Only around 30 people R.S.V.P’d,” apologized one of the organizers, Mary Ann Keisler, who is director of tourism at Thoroughbred Country, an organization dedicated to promoting the hospitality industry in western South Carolina. “And there are many more of you here than we expected.”

It turned out that the meeting wasn’t about a horse park. Rather, it was a forum conducted by Robert Cleverdon, director of an Ireland-based company called Tourism Development International, to solicit ideas and opinions about how to promote Aiken and Edgefield Counties as tourist destinations. Tourism Development International is a consulting firm that was hired by South Carolina’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism to create a comprehensive tourism plan for the state. One option in that plan calls for solidifying Aiken’s reputation as an equestrian destination by making it the location of a horse park that could be used for shows, clinics and other equestrian events.

Robert Cleverdon had an agenda that he tried to follow during the meeting. That agenda included identifying various things other than the equestrian life that might attract tourists. The meeting was also intended to address potential tourist attractions in Edgefield County. Several people had made the trip to USCA from Edgefield, and they may have been eager to discuss historic houses, Native American archeological sites and bike trails in their neighborhoods. However, the overwhelming majority of attendees were horse people from Aiken. They had come to talk about a horse park, and that is what they did.

Cleverdon, an Englishman, didn’t appear to understand exactly what was happening. He would ask if people in Aiken wanted more museums, and someone would reply that they thought a horse park would be good for the area because it would complement the many great equestrian facilities we already have. He would suggest that we could develop our waterways to attract more tourists, and someone else would answer that they worried that the horse park might detract from the charm of Aiken. Although a horse park was, indeed, one of the official topics of discussion, after a few rounds on the subject, Mr. Cleverdon tried, with little success, to get people to stop bringing it up. The end result was perhaps a bit disappointing for horsemen and Englishmen alike, since neither got to explore the topics that interested them in any depth.

Tourism Development International will be making recommendations to the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and they might even suggest developing a horse park for Aiken. However, in the current economic climate, it is unlikely that the state would be able to do anything in the near future. Funds for creating such a facility would have to come from a public-private partnership, and even then, the state would have to be on firmer financial footing before considering such a thing.

What the forum did prove was that Aiken’s horsemen are very eager to talk about a horse park. Following the meeting, Deirdre Stoker Vaillancourt, a realtor with Meybohm and a horsewoman, spoke with Representative Tim Young, a state legislator who was eager to pursue the idea further. Several area horsemen are planning to set up meetings that really are about a horse park, both to explore its possible impact on the area and to determine ways that it could be made a reality. Stay for the latest updates.

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