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Expand Equestrian Program In Hartford To Serve More Youths

Stan Simpson

May 06, 2009

I can't blame Patricia Kelly for being exasperated; make that disgusted.

For 20 years, the founder and CEO of the Ebony Horsewomen has been pitching an idea to build a privately funded equestrian center for Keney Park in north Hartford.

For the most part, community folks and public officials enthusiastically endorsed the novel concept and economic potential of an urban equestrian park for north Hartford now estimated to cost $60 million to encompass 200 acres.

Questions mostly centered not so much on the suitability of Keney for such a venture, but whether the business would be a boost for the economy. Last week, the city council, responding to an apparent change of heart from several community groups, squashed Kelly's plans. The reason: Folks didn't think the 693-acre park was an appropriate setting.

Now, reasonable minds can debate the issue of a private business using a big chunk of a public park. (Those against the idea are obviously oblivious to the Keney Park golf operation.)

It shouldn't, however, take two decades to reach consensus.

Plus, all Kelly was seeking was the right to further pursue private funding and additional feasibility tests before coming back to the council. She would not run, or profit from, the proposed equestrian center. Her only benefit would be the expansion of her 25-year-old nonprofit equestrian youth development organization inside Keney.

From her cramped Vine Street office Tuesday, Kelly summed up the latest vibe about the proposed Connecticut Equestrian and Exhibit Center: "They'd love to have it in Hartford, but not in the park? That's confusing to me."

Look, I'm no horseman. My knowledge of the equine trade starts with Mr. Ed and ends with Secretariat. But I do know the equestrian industry is big bidness in the billions. And Connecticut historically has had the highest number of horses per capita in the nation, yet no major equestrian venue.

Why not look at Connecticut's capital city for America's horse (per capita) capital?

I also know that Keney, when it is consistently cleaned and patrolled, is acre-for-acre the most underrated public park in the region. There is a scenic golf course, and cricket for a West Indian community that has made Greater Hartford a place with one of the highest concentrations of West Indians in America. The idea of a golf course, cricket, basketball courts and an equestrian center made sense to me.

"These things are economic engines," Kelly said, pointing to similar equestrian centers in Lexington, Ky., and Lexington, Va., that she visited and that generate hundreds of millions for those areas.

OK, let's not beat a dead ... (sorry). Time for a Plan B.

The Ebony Horsewomen program has been lauded for training 300 kids a year, mostly from Hartford. Kelly, a 61-year-old ex-Marine, uses her 14 horses as a hook to teach kids about life, leadership and responsibility. So let's super-size it. Expand it inside Keney. Double the number of kids it serves.

The kids are taught equestrian training, animal science and veterinary medicine. It has partnerships with the University of Connecticut, Hartford public schools, the Boys and Girls Club and the Ys. Securing city, state, federal and grant money is tough these days. But this is about education and enriching the minds of one of Connecticut's most underserved populations.

It might take 20 more years for a revised equestrian center plan to get legs.

Expanding a successful equestrian youth development program is something we can saddle up now.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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