Turf war raging over fairgrounds

February 28, 1998|By LAURA ERNDE

photo (upper left) by Kevin G. Gilbert / staff photographer

photo (lower right) by Richard T. Meagher / staff photographer

Turf war raging over fairgrounds

A silent turf battle has been raging over use of the Hagerstown Fairgrounds.

On one side, there is the time-honored tradition of horse showing. On the other, the newly popular sport of soccer.

In the middle is a seemingly never-ending need for softball fields in Washington County.

It is not an ugly fight. Advocates for all activities simply have different visions of what the 68 acres of open space at Mulberry and Cannon avenues should look like.

There simply isn't enough room there for all dreams to become a reality.

The decision will be up to members of the Hagerstown City Council, who will look at several possibilities and hear recommendations from a park planning consultant Tuesday.


The horse people have history on their side.

Animals have always been the main attraction at the fairgrounds. The Great Hagerstown Fair ended a 126-year run there in 1980.

From 1929 to 1970, the fairgrounds hosted thoroughbred racing on a half-mile track.

Today, there are few facilities for horse enthusiasts.

Local horse breeders would like to have a place to show their majestic animals, which are painstakingly groomed and trained. Now, they must travel hours to compete.

Breeders would like to see an equestrian complex where horses could be shown and judged in dozens of categories. Events like jousting, which is the Maryland state sport, could also be held there, they say.

Such an undertaking would require a lot of space for showing, as well as for parking large horse trailers.

The location and amount of space at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center is inadequate, they say.

The fairgrounds is in a unique position to cash in on the loss of some large equestrian centers in nearby urban centers, said Leslie Mills, a Hancock thoroughbred breeder.

An equestrian center could be an economic boon to the area's hotels and restaurants.

Horse breeding is a thriving business in the Tri-State area.

One of the larger breeders is Rhonda Replogle, who also trains quarter horses at her ranch near Clear Spring.

The valuable animals are kept in heated barns. Replogle's most valuable stallion is worth about $300,000.

"We treat them like pampered little dolls," she said.

Mills and other breeders also picture an equestrian center as a place where non-agricultural people can be exposed to the charm of horses.

"I want anybody who likes the four-legged creatures with a hoof on the end to feel welcome," Mills said.

Soccer playersSoccer's side

Soccer parents have the youth of the county on their side.

Up to 2,000 children in Washington County play soccer, mostly on makeshift fields and school lawns, said Jim Brown, who helped the Washington County Parks and Recreation Department study the need for soccer fields.

The number of fields has not kept pace with the skyrocketing popularity of the sport in the last 10 years, he said.

"Most communities are tackling the same problem," he said.

The sport has become a favorite because it requires more exercise than baseball and has a lower injury rate than football, fans said.

An eight-field soccer complex on Independent Cement Co. property won't be ready until at least 2004, Brown said.

Soccer parents, impatient to get a home for the sport, believe the Hagerstown Fairgrounds would be an ideal location.

A central complex would ease the burden on parents, who have to shuttle their children from field to field.

Jerry and Mary Anne Kamas of Hagerstown will have three children in soccer this spring who will each have two practices a week plus games. That makes for a hectic family schedule.

"Somehow, when your children really want to do something, you find a way," said Mary Anne Kamas.

Volunteers would have an easier time managing a central soccer complex than organizing and maintaining scattered sites, said Dave Parker, regional commissioner for the Hagerstown Area Youth Soccer League.

Like an equestrian center, a soccer complex could also make money by hosting regional tournaments, Parker said.

Softball space

In the midst of the debate at the fairgrounds, the need for softball fields cannot be dismissed, said Kathy Maher, senior planner for the City of Hagerstown.

City Park has the only softball fields within city limits and those are inadequate, she said.

Softball fields, like soccer fields and horse rings, also require large chunks of flat land, she said.

In the end, the turf battle comes down to the lay of the land.

On Tuesday, the Hunt Valley, Md., consulting firm of KCI Technologies Inc. will present the council with a recommendation on how to best use the fairgrounds.

"We want them to tell us what would really work out there," Maher said.

KCI has been working from a plan conceived by a citizen committee about a year ago, she said.

The committee thought the plan would please enthusiasts of many recreational activities - from walking to BMX bike racing.

The plan shows four soccer fields, four softball fields, a bike track, skateboarding area and two horse show arenas.

But city officials have since learned that all those activities won't fit on the fairgrounds land.

Short on space

Of the 68 acres the committee thought they had to work with, only about half can be used for the big, wide open spaces needed for horse shows, soccer or softball because the land is so hilly, Maher said.

"Our choice is either to eliminate something or build three things that don't suit anybody," Maher said. "It just comes down to what will fit."

The BMX bike track, skateboarding area and walking trails would be easy to accommodate in any plan for the land, she said.

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