University of South Carolina

USC tourism researchers say Aiken horse park a good bet

By Frenche Brewer, brewer4@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3691

It’s a good bet that most people around the country don’t know that the city of Aiken, S.C., has a thriving horse culture.

But a recent study conducted by Simon Hudson, director of the University of South Carolina’s SmartState Center of Economic Excellence in Tourism and Economic Excellence, and a team of researchers could be the first step toward putting Aiken on the national map.

The study looked at what it would take to bring a horse park to Aiken -- a venue for events such as dressage, hunters/jumpers, barrel racing, polo and other competitions.  It found there is broad community support for a horse park in the city near the South Carolina-Georgia border, but it would also require major community financial resources and private investor support.

Researchers found an international horse park in Aiken could host 225 events each year, attracting nearly a half million visitors with an economic impact of $38 million a year. Estimates show the costs of building a facility between $98 million and $136 million, according to USC researchers.

“The thing that Aiken has going for it is its history in horse events. It’s got a horse culture. If you go down to the community there it’s a very wealthy community. I’m told there are 352 days of really good footing for horses, so people come down from New York and Pennsylvania and up from Florida. They even come over from the Middle East and bring over their horses to train. It’s a really busy horse culture.

“The equestrian community is already worth about $70 million a year to the Aiken community,” Hudson said.

Six months ago, the Aiken Chamber of Commerce approached Hudson to conduct an objective economic impact study to build a horse park in Aiken, and study the feasibility of expanding an existing, albeit, exclusive industry.

 “The Greater Aiken Chamber’s Equine Support Council has been thoroughly impressed with the work ethic of the team and the quality of the product,” Aiken Chamber of Commerce President/CEO, J. David Jameson said. “Now we wait and see if there are people who want to invest.  The possibilities are exciting.” 

Hudson and his team studied whether building a horse park would be realistic, a good business venture and a positive investment for the Aiken community, which is about 15 miles east of Augusta, Ga., and 60 miles west of Columbia, S.C. The researchers looked at similar ventures across the United States and internationally. They also talked to industry experts, conducted focus groups and interviewed people in the community, asking their opinions about the pros and cons of constructing a horse park in their city.

“We looked at demand, who’s going to  make the  trip, how far will they drive, how much will they spend, what’s potential economic impact --- and what resources are already in Aiken to support an international horse park,” Hudson said.

Stakeholders had some reservations, concerned that an international horse park would dilute the character of Aiken and cannibalize existing equine businesses. But surveys showed that most Aiken residents believe that a new multi-use international horse park will encourage more visitor spending, increase jobs in the community and provide economic benefits to local people.

“I think there’s so much potential for South Carolina. So few of our tourists are international, about 3 or 4 percent, and yet they spend a lot more money than domestic tourists, they stay longer and they’ll spread the word.  At the moment they’re just passing through,” Hudson said.

Data were projected for three levels of utilization in the new park—low, medium and high. Medium utilization would mean attracting 225 events each year to the park—two-thirds of those events being equine-related. At this level of use, the new horse park could expect to attract approximately 428,000 attendees. This would have an annual spending impact of about $38 million generating 575 full-time jobs and $2.9 million in indirect business taxes. Financing the equine park could come from a mix of sources, including state economic development money and federal grants.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the study concluded that if an international horse park in Aiken is to survive and prosper, it must be used for activities beyond the equestrian industry

“A cross-country course for example, with very little alteration, can also fit the needs for either mountain bike racing or track and field cross-country events. Likewise, an indoor arena and an outdoor pavilion are easily adaptable to multiple non-equine events. Empty facilities generate no revenue and if the proposed international horse park in Aiken is to succeed, it must look to maximize revenue through multiple event days,” Hudson said.

Hudson said if Aiken builds an international horse park that attracts media and creates attention to it, that will be fantastic for all of South Carolina.

Paraphrasing the line from the film “Field of Dreams,” “If you build it, they will come.”

Posted: 08/28/12 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 08/28/12 @ 5:40 PM | Permalink