Could Traverse City’s own Horse Shows by the Bay eventually grow into a $100 million annual economic engine? There is a precedent, one that some observers say could be a model for the summer festival here in northern Michigan.
Consider Exhibit A: Wellington, Fla., located in tony Palm Beach County. In the mid 1960s, a small circuit of competitive horse events spanned the area. By the mid-1980s, a group of investors purchased property and helped create what is now the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, which encompasses 500 acres of horse grounds. The facility is home to the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF), the largest and longest-running event in horse sports, a 12-week equestrian spectacle held every January through April.
Each winter, thousands of North America's equestrian elite head to Wellington – and it shows. Horses (and their riders) stroll down streets between events; shop windows display competitive schedules; $4.2 million has been donated to 75 area charities via fundraisers; and the local Chamber and Convention & Visitors Bureau are believers.
In its promotional materials, the local tourism bureau cites the “horse economy” as a major draw, even appealing to those without a direct interest in the sport, noting, “Not only will you enjoy the action in the stadium, but also galleries for shopping, wine and coffee bars, tasty food fare, outdoor cafes and children's area.”
Mason Phelps, trustee of the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce, says, “The equestrian industry which encompasses dressage, hunters and jumpers and polo, generates something in excess of $100,000,000 annually of economic impact to Palm Beach County."
Come summer, those same competitors span across North America to dozens of events and festivals – like Horse Shows by the Bay here in Traverse City.
Horse Shows by the Bay was founded in 2004 by Alex Rheinheimer, who in 2007 developed the 84-acre Flintfields Horse Park off M-72 in Williamsburg. Since then, the show has become one of the region's primary summer tourism drivers, attracting more than 3,000 competitors and support staff for several weeks of competition each summer. This year's show will run July 3-28.
Horse Shows organizers estimate the annual local economic impact at approximately $12 million.
From his perch as the head of local tourism, TC Convention & Visitors Bureau CEO Brad Van Dommelen notes, “There is no question that Horse Shows by the Bay provides a significant impact for our community. And…the participants of this festival are in the area for extended periods of time so they get out into our community and enjoy our restaurants and entertainment facilities, they shop in our retail and convenience stores, purchase gasoline at our service stations and thoroughly enjoy all that our community has to offer.”
Palm Beach’s Phelps has visited Traverse City, and agrees the region and festival have the right “horsepower” to grow.
“The sport equestrian continues to grow not only in Wellington but around the country and any AA-rated show with a four or five week series can expect similar results,” he says. “Horse Shows by the Bay is a prime example with huge potential for growth with a tremendous economic impact to the community. The advantage of Horse Shows by the Bay is the location as a summer destination."