Photo by Brian Giandelone
Editor's note: This is the first installment in a two-part series examining the economic impact of the Georgia International Horse Park. This story offers a brief history of the park and reports on what the city of Conyers has done to build on the success of hosting the 1996 Olympics equestrian and mountain biking competitions.
CONYERS -- Horses are a natural sight on the rolling hills, trails and arenas at the Georgia International Horse Park, but the 1,400-acre property has a wider appeal.
"I think a lot of people have no idea how much is really going on at the horse park," said Jennifer Edwards, director of public relations and tourism for the city of Conyers, which owns the horse park. "On any given weekend, we can have horse shows, a wedding, people visiting the Nature Center or using the trails. Until you experience it for yourself, you really have no idea how much is going on here."
In 1993, the city of Conyers began construction of an equestrian complex on the land situated off Ga. Highway 138 North between Costley Mill and Mount Zion roads. The work was precipitated by news in 1991 that equestrian events for the 1996 Summer Olympics would be held in Conyers.
The equestrian facilities were constructed with the Olympic Games in mind; but once the games ended, city officials shifted gears and began to look at ways to capitalize on the growing tourism industry, using the horse park as a primary draw for visitors.
The centerpiece of the Georgia International Horse Park is its equine attractions that encompass 300 acres and include eight outdoor fenced arenas, two unfenced multiuse arenas, 690 stalls and a 30,000-square-foot covered multipurpose building that can accommodate 130 temporary stalls.
The Grand Prix Stadium and Plaza is where the larger-scale events are held. The competition/exhibition area is 143,175 square feet and the amphitheater-style seating can accommodate 8,000 spectators.
The Charles Walker Arena is the covered arena at the horse park that has seating for 2,500 people.
The Georgia International Horse Park is home to the first Olympic mountain biking course in the world. The more than 8-mile course includes 1,032 feet of elevation change. In April, the Granite Grinder Half Marathon and 5K Trail Race will be held there. In addition, each year the Muddy Buddy Ride and Run Series is held at the horse park where teams of bicyclers and runners traverse the trail, ending the race by crawling through a mud pit to the finish line. This year's Muddy Buddy race is scheduled for June 19, according to the Muddy Buddy Web site, www.muddy-buddy.competitor.com.
In 2006, the city of Conyers opened the Big Haynes Creek Nature Center. The Nature Center encompasses approximately 160 acres and includes a trail and wetlands with a canoe launch.
"One unique feature of the Nature Center is that it represents just about every geographic region of Georgia: mountains, the Piedmont, wetlands," Edwards said.
She said city officials are working with Ecos Environmental Design to develop a master plan for the Nature Center.
The horse park is also a destination for other special events. The Carriage Room and The Legacy Room can be rented for meetings, banquets, weddings and other professional events that are catered by Proof of the Pudding.
Included on the property are the Arnold Palmer-designed Cherokee Run Golf Course and Hawthorn Suites & Golf Resort Hotel.
Management of two of the properties at the horse park -- Cherokee Run Golf Course and Hawthorn Suites & Golf Resort Hotel -- hasn't been an easy road.
The two properties are leased by Conyers to different management corporations.
For a time, Hawthorn Suites operated under a lessee/sublessee structure. The arrangement was called into question when maintenance of the hotel began to suffer and the city placed the property in default. Eventually, the sublessor backed away, and Earl Wilson, who now is the sole lessor, is working to make a number of improvements to the facility as required by the city.
At the same time the city was wrangling over the management of the hotel, Cherokee Run Golf Course was running into similar difficulties. Jong Kyu Kim took over the 50-year lease of the course in 2006, at which time 41 years were remaining. In 2009, Kim filed bankruptcy, listing the city of Conyers as his largest creditor.
The city has disputed how much Kim owes, but Kim will reportedly emerge March 31 from bankruptcy, at which time renovations are to be completed.
Horses, horses, horses
The centerpiece of the Georgia International Horse Park is its equine attractions. A number of horse shows are held there each year, from horse jumping competitions to dressage shows to rodeos.
The Classic Company hosts two of the largest horse shows at the horse park each year. The Atlanta Spring Classic and the Atlanta Summer Classics are two-week events that include hunter/jumper competitions and two $25,000 Grand Prix classes.
In 2009, the American Quarter Horse Association's Stars & Stripes had more than 13,000 entries, one of the largest events of the year.
Ann Genovese said The Good Horseman Foundation first held events at the horse park in 1999 and now her organization hosts five dressage shows a year there. She said their shows can attract between 70 and 150 horses
"The horse park is the best facility we have in the state," Genovese said. "They do an outstanding job for the promoters and they leave no stone unturned to try to help us put on a good show."
The Newton County Saddle Club also considers the Georgia International Horse Park its hub for shows, according to organizer Kathy Johnson. She said the Newton County Saddle Club has held events there since 1998 and now the group holds four shows a year -- two in the spring and two in the fall.
"We do not hold events outside of the horse park, except for our Special Equestrians, and their practices are held at one of our members' farm," Johnson said.
The Newton County Saddle Club has a membership of approximately 200 from all over Georgia.
The Saddle Club has classes for English riders, western riders, saddleseat riders, gaited riders, as well as classes for miniature horses and donkeys. Johnson said they generally attract 125 riders for English shows and 100 for western shows
"This year we are really excited as we are adding classes for challenged riders," Johnson said.
The Newton County Saddle Club sponsors a Special Olympic Equestrian Team and provides horses and volunteers to prepare the riders for the Georgia Special Olympics show in Perry.