This morning the Equine Industry Task Force provided a briefing to one of the County Council standing committees. The briefing was item two on the short, if full, agenda of the Planning, Zoning and Economic Development (PZED) Committee, chaired this term by Councilman Obie Patterson. First up was a strategic plan presentation from Park and Planning. This is a big ticket item in the County, and so this presentation was to a packed hearing room. (Even though I suspect that most of those in attendance still were staffers of one or another of the agencies participating!).
After a quick break, the room had thinned out significantly. Sadly, County Council members DO count heads, and I think that low attendance signifies to them little interest in the material under discussion. Now that some meetings are streamed over the web, I hope Council will keep tabs also on the number of hits that the hearings get from those unable to be present in person due to job, dependent care, and similar obligations.
Wisely, the Task Force spent a good deal of time discussing the economic development aspects of equine industry. Even though most people think about animals as good for our health and for our soul and as real companions in their lives, let's face it: the current economy is making states and counties (and towns and cities) really, really nervous about budgets. Come to think of it, in PG County, animals have ALWAYS been seen mostly as a source of revenues (look at how the "monthly report archive" of PG Animal Management has been formatted, with revenues reported before ANY other statistic. What about expenditures? Animal Management doesn't want to say how much it COSTS you and me to raise those fines and fees. (Nor does animal control here like to admit how much it costs in the actual lives of wonderful, innocent animals).
Equine industry, an agricultural enterprise, not only involves horses. Horses, in and of themselves, can be a significant investment. However, in addition to horses, there is horse feed. There is horse housing in barns and stables. There are veterinary care and horse boarding and there's farrier work and hay and saddles and trailering too. Task Force members explained to the hearing, that most of the dollars spent on these expenses by horse fanciers, are spent right IN the County. They build the local economy, in other words.
Although the prior agenda item discussed Master Plans for zoning of the County in terms of all such plans having been prepared and reviewed and approved, Task Force members pointed out that there IS no Master Plan for the Equestrian Center, although it is virtually IN Upper Marlboro. There is apparently a Master Plan for the parking area around the Center, but when there is a need to plan for adding to or changing facilities at the Center itself, there is no Master Plan to refer to! Committee members seemed to understand that this should be a Council action item.
There was a flurry of discussion and some interest (belatedly!) regarding Rosecroft Racecourse. Seems that now that Rosecroft is laboring to arise from bankrupcy, both Patterson and Tolles wish to claim the property as lying in their respective councilmanic districts. (But neither of those districts took an interest in the property when the animal welfare community and horsemen rallied valiantly and worked for many months, to provide for the people and animals that had called the racecourse grounds "home" until they were evicted).
For my tastes, there is too much reliance on "shipping in" for equine events in the County. Shipping in means (as far as this non-horseperson understands) loading horses onto a trailer and driving them to or from events, housing them in boarding stables, but NOT training, showing, breeding, housing, or feeding them on a regular basis, in the county. It's ludicrous to imagine that Prince George's County, long a bastion of horse breeding and industry, has receded into being a place where we import horses for special occasions, but let other regions raise those horses, train them, and enjoy the commerce relating to things horse-related.
Several Council members and other speakers related anecdotes of experiences with horses that were really life-changing, and Councilmember Tolles inquired about programs to involve young children in the county in interacting with horses. However, later on, Councilmember Franklin was mildly disparaging about this line of discussion as "anecdotal," and urged that a professional study be undertaken regarding the marketing of the equine industry. Well and good, I think, but let's not lose sight of the ineffable aspects of life around horses that has defined Prince George's County through history. Councilmembers are searching to decide what the Prince George's County marketing "niche" should be now after Tobacco farming has ended. Task Force members are right, that certainly being big horse country is not such a bad thing from either an economic or an esthetic perspective!