Business Lexington – Frankfort Holds the reins

By Erik A. Carlson and Susan Baniak
Business Lexington

With three years remaining until the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games arrive in Lexington, key preparations for the international championship event may already be coming down to the wire. Prior to the legislative portion of this general assembly session, Gov. Ernie Fletcher called for $38.3 million to build a new stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park along with other park improvements in time for the FEI World Equestrian Games. Many legislators, however, voiced their reluctance to open the state’s purse strings for it during a non-budget year. The situation has some wondering if the state’s legislators, or the state in general, feel the same urgency in preparing for the World Equestrian Games’ first trip to Kentucky — and the United States — that is felt by the Bluegrass.

As Jim Host and John Nicholson presented an update on the 2010 Games to the Senate’s Economic Development Committee, one of the senators told them about an illuminating moment. Senator Brett Guthrie (R-Bowling Green) told Host, chairman of the 2010 Games foundation and Nicholson, head of the Kentucky Horse Park, about a recent dinner he had with a foreign client. Despite the business he wished to conduct, Guthrie said, all the man wanted to talk about was the 2010 Games and how excited Guthrie must be to be hosting them in his state. It wasn’t until then, Guthrie said, that the appreciation for the size and importance of the games sank in for him.

Shedding a light on the long-lasting significance the 2010 Games can have on the commonwealth and beyond is the easy part for Host, Nicholson and a group of others closely tied to the Games. Convincing a majority of the 138 members of the general assembly and their leadership to allocate the money requested before the legislature adjourns for the year on March 27 is another matter.

“I’m personally for doing it as soon as we can, but I think that it’s unlikely the overall decision will be made to open up the budget that much,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Harry Moberly (D-Richmond). “But the session is not over and we’ll have to see what other things are considered, and it’s not 100 percent yet.”

Moberly’s comments echo those of many area legislators who feel the need for the park upgrades, but not at the accelerated pace Fletcher and those closely associated with the Games say is needed to prepare for test events required in the year leading up to the Games.

“It would be a real disservice to a lot of folks if they felt like waiting until ‘08 was OK, because it’s not,” said Finance and Administration Cabinet Secretary John Farris. “And we’ve heard that potential sponsors, if they saw that (there is difficulty in getting the stadium funded), it might be a signal to them not to sponsor the event.”

The call for stadium funding

Before the recent Commerce Lexington annual dinner, and with just 26 legislative days left in the 2007 session, Fletcher, flanked by a large contingent of state and equine leaders, announced to the press and public plans for the permanent 10,000 seat stadium that could be expanded to accommodate 30,000 spectators for the 2010 Games. This plan had evolved out of the original proposal the state made to FEI that secured the Games with a temporary stadium that could seat 20,000.

“The growth of the event (as evident in Aachen) put a charge into it as well and what we saw was the on-site (spectators) doubled from the previous World Games,” in Jerez, Spain, where the events drew 20,000 to watch, Commerce Cabinet Secretary George Ward said. “When we went to Aachen and saw the numbers of people and we saw how the event was held, we came back and not only did we have to rethink the size of the stadium, we had to rethink the design of the park and how we were going to layout the venues.”

According to Nicholson, when they set out to bid on the Games, they did so looking at requirements that are now “obsolete” because of the success in last year’s Aachen Games.

“After Aachen they don’t want us to go backward,” 2010 Games CEO Jack Kelly told Business Lexington. “This event is on a different kind of a curve than they were on when this bid was initiated.”

Being on a completely different plane allows for what Fletcher and organizers are calling a legacy event, an annual weeklong national championship to be conducted at the horse park in the new arena and proposed stadium. With the legacy event and stadium in place, Nicholson says the Kentucky Horse Park, purchased in 1969, will be completely self-sufficient by 2012, no longer requiring money from the state’s general fund.

However, worries are mounting that if funds for the stadium and infrastructure improvements are held off until the 2008 session, time or funding restraints may force them into building a seven-figure temporary seating facility that would be in use only during the Games.

“We would have to put in 30,000 temp seats, probably tear down what’s there now, and then John (Nicholson) is left with nothing once the Games are gone,” Kelly said, adding that would only leave six months to build something new in time for the 2011 Rolex Three Day Event.

Regardless of the facility the Horse Park uses for the Games, it must stand up to the intense rigor set forth by the FEI before it can be deemed safe for competition.

According to Malina Gueorguiev, FEI communications manager, at the organization’s headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, “(FEI does) organize an event for the specialists to go in and see if, for example, a new ground has been put in place, to run on that new ground to see how good it is, because for the horses, it’s key.” Gueorguiev added, “Any event in the world does not match the standards of the World Equestrian Games. It’s a really, really exceptional event.”

That is not lost on the Lexington organizers.

“Every test event that you do finds something that you didn’t think about, didn’t know about. And we don’t want to have the first time we experience them to be … Sept. 26, 2010, the first time we’ve had world-class athletes who stretch the boundaries of the sport, who do things other athletes can’t do,” Kelly said. “You’ve got $10 million horses… you don’t want to put them at any physical risk at all outside of the normal physical risk in their sport.”

More equine parks emerge

While Kentucky is home to one of the nation’s first state horse parks, the plans approved last year, coupled with those currently on the table, aim to ensure that Kentucky remains home to the nation’s preeminent venue for equine events. Driven by a growing interest in protecting and serving their own equine interests and staving off the potential threats of development to their sport, other states including Maryland, Florida and Georgia, have gotten into the game. These more recent horse parks initiatives are creating new competition for the Iron Works Pike Mecca to all things equestrian.

“(As a 500-acre park on state property) we’re not going away, so we can really provide a long-term facility to develop young riders to hold international events,” said Margaret Rowell, director of development for the Ocala-based Florida Horse Park. “Our revenue-generation abilities will be comparable (to the Kentucky Horse Park’s), if not a little bit more, because I think we will have a little bit longer season than they do, once we are fully developed,” she said.

The Florida Horse Park is in its second season of operation, and the Maryland Horse Park is in the process of coming online. They are new and they are ambitious. Combined, however, they are 200 acres smaller than the Kentucky Horse Park, and both are hoping, in part, to ride on the success of the 1200-acre park near Lexington.

“We’re really in a lot of ways following the model of Kentucky. We feel like they’ve done such a good job of marketing themselves. We’re so excited about having the World Equestrian Games here in 2010 in the United States. It’s going to do a lot for the sport,” Rowell said.

Rob Burk, head of the proposed $114 million Maryland Horse Park, said their economic feasibility study revealed that “$11 million (in taxes for the state) would be generated each year by a facility similar to Kentucky’s. And that’s really how we justify the capital costs of a facility like this.”

The outcome of the next few months could prove to be pivotal for the Kentucky Horse Park, and on a larger scale, as it affects the first World Equestrian Games held outside of Europe, it has the potential to influence other future opportunities for equestrian sports across America. According to the FEI Web site, the Games themselves have gained considerable momentum after recovering from a series of blunders in the 1990s, including some that forced FEI to move the Games to alternate host cities in both 1994 and 1998. Since then, the Games have grown significantly in their international visibility and participation, as shown by the Kentucky contingent’s experience in Aachen. A set back could discourage future ventures outside of Europe for the relatively young equestrian event.

“Clearly there is always going to be the approach where the governor and the legislature looks at funds available and programs they think are urgent to make some proposals in the short session. That’s what it’s here for,” Fletcher told reporters a day after he presented his spending plan that included funds for the horse park in the State of the Commonwealth Address. “If we’re going to have a session and not do anything, we might as well adjourn and go home.”

During his press conference announcing the project at the Commerce Lexington dinner, Fletcher said this was the type of issue governors would call a special session for in the era before the odd-year short sessions. However, Fletcher has not said if he will in fact call the legislature back to Frankfort if House Speaker Jody Richards and Senate President David Williams stick to their early session objections to opening the biennial budget for any reason.

Feb 23, 2007