It's not every day that a $6 million investment is made in Ulster County, but that's what Horseshows in the Sun, known as HITS, has done in building their new show grounds in Saugerties, the brand new home of HITS on the Hudson series of horse shows. And, as with any project of this size, it has been hailed as an economic boon, and condemned as an environmental boondoggle.
Championed by HITS president Tom Struzzieri, the show grounds have taken two years to build. The state-of-the-art facility encompasses eight competition rings, two feature arenas, a food court, shops, permanent and temporary stabling for competitors' horses, parking for 50 recreational vehicles (complete with electric, water and telephone hookup), and even a Mercedes Benz dealership, all surrounded by a 2.5 mile path that will be used by horses, walkers, and runners - including the local high school cross-country track team.
Struzzieri is not alone in his assurances that the show circuit will undoubtedly will have a positive impact on the local economy; the project has been welcomed with open arms by local politicians and business owners.
Each of this summer's seven horse shows in Saugerties will bring between 1,500 and 2,000 horses and approximately 3,000 horse people to the area for every five-day show. And, if you know anything about the people who go to horse shows, you know that they're pretty good at spending money, so a substantial injection into the local economy is inevitable. Estimates of the economic impact have ranged up to $30 million for a season.
In addition, the entire gate receipts, projected at about $15,000 a weekend (the shows are free Wednesday through Friday and tickets are $5 on weekends) will be donated to Family of Woodstock, from which HITS leases more than half of the 200 acres of the show site. While the nonprofit agency has federal funding, grants, and private donations (Struzzieri and his family began donating to the agency in 2001), as Executive Director Michael Berg described it, "HITS just made my job a lot easier."
Struzzieri is no stranger to the Hudson Valley and he says that his interest in creating a world-class facility here stems, in part, from an ongoing desire to make a positive impact on the community. He came to the area from Long Island in 1979 to manage a horse farm in Poughkeepsie, his first experience running horse shows. In 1982 Struzzieri produced his first series of multi-day horse shows during the winter season in Florida with minimal logistical know-how and a shoestring budget. The intervening decades have seen Struzzieri's organization grow exponentially. HITS now employs about 60 people nationwide, 20 of whom are in the company's headquarters in the converted Saugerties Post Office, producing horse shows circuits in four other locations around the country: Ocala, Florida; Indio in California; Tucson, Arizona; and Culpeper in Virginia.
As he began producing more horse shows, Struzzieri recognized an opportunity: catering to what he described as the middle of the pyramid. Why? "Because it's so big," answers Struzzieri. With that in mind, he targeted his shows not at the most elite competitors, but at the people who rode and showed at smaller shows who were looking for an opportunity to compete at high profile events. He is proud of the fact that at his shows, a novice adult rider can be competing in one ring and an Olympian could be in another.
As a resident of the Hudson Valley, Struzzieri felt there was a large untapped market in the area, which is why he started the HITS Catskills show. But he knew that if the show was successful, Ellenville, where HITS's Catskill circuit was located from 1999-2003, would be a temporary site because the farm he leased did not offer enough room for anticipated expansion and, Struzzieri says, "It was hard to satisfy my customers with the amenities the town offered."
Struzzieri's search for a permanent location was surprisingly difficult despite the help of the Ulster Development Corporation and a lot of local knowledge. Initially it seemed that the former IBM Country Club in the Town of Ulster would be a great site, until it was determined that there was pollution that IBM was not willing to clean up. Then he found a location in Hurley, but as discussions progressed, it was clear that the package of public and local government support needed to make the project happen just didn't exist.
Early in his search he had rejected the site in Saugerties, which Family of Woodstock had offered, without even looking at it. He deemed it too close to home and not big enough. Finally, frustrated after looking at what he described as every possible property in Ulster County, he contacted Mike Berg and they walked the land.
The path from that walk to the facility's grand opening on May 30th has not been a smooth one. Aside from the tremendous undertaking of constructing a facility that, Struzzieri says, incorporates everything he ever wished his horse show grounds had, there have been a number of issues that have needed the help of the local powers-that-be to resolve.
One of the concerns involved finding a way to assuage local residents' concerns about traffic. As a result, show exhibitors are being routed to the site - which is bounded by Washington Avenue and Kraut Road - from the west in an attempt to keep trucks and trailers from clogging Saugerties main traffic arteries.
Then there was the issue of securing the zoning variances and construction permits for the kinds of clearing and construction that were planned. Struzzieri acknowledges that the help of Saugerties Town Supervisor Greg Helsmoortel, mayor Bob Yerick and local legislators has been invaluable. Saugerties building inspector Paul Andreassen agrees; from his point of view the necessary paperwork was done on a real fast track.
The biggest obstacle arose when the US Army Corps of Engineers made a determination that construction had disturbed federally protected wetlands, which halted work and delayed the show's move from Ellenville by a full year. That was the point, Struzzieri says, at which he realized he was out of his league. He reached out to Congressman Maurice Hinchey, who helped arrange a deal to mitigate the wetlands damage. Part of that deal led Struzzieri to put up $250,000 to purchase 150 acres on the Esopus Creek that several environmental organizations had been trying to protect.
Hinchey is excited about this project, effusing at a recent press conference, "HITS is the best thing that has ever happened to Saugerties in my lifetime."
There are still complaints that valuable wetlands have been lost and that so much land was cleared for HITS that erosion and drainage will be an environmental issue, but Struzzieri points out that the site includes 11 drainage ponds fed by a comprehensive pipe system. He also observes that the construction doesn't seem to have deterred some very active beavers who have a "sizeable dam" in a corner of the property.
Building Inspector Andreassen has been active in his oversight of the construction, often assisted by tips from disgruntled neighbors who don't relish the seemingly inevitable loss of privacy and quiet. He does make it clear that the HITS organization has responded professionally and appropriately to all official notices, describing the interaction with the construction and management teams as "a good working relationship."
Many local business people and politicians have given their support to this project and look forward to its success. Irene MacPherson of the Ulster Development Corporation, who helped with the site search, commented that Saugerties was ideal for this type of undertaking because it has, "Heritage, history, infrastructure, and a proven ability to handle large crowds." Only time and several horse shows will tell what HITS-on-the-Hudson really means to the village of Saugerties.
In addition to hundreds of classes for all different types of competitors and a Grand Prix each Thursday and Sunday, HITS has scheduled several special events throughout the season. For more information, call (845) 246-8833 or visit www.hitsshows.com.