January 15, 2014

Horse power could boost Erin economy

As published in The Erin Advocate

Town Council has given initial support to a report from the Equine Task Force, recognizing the horse industry as a major economic development engine for the local economy.

Councillors will decide in their upcoming budget deliberations whether to spend money to expand this existing strength, promoting the Town as the GTA’s Equine Playground, or the Gateway to Horse Country. 

The Task Force is recommending that $134,000 be spent this year on economic development coordination, marketing, communication and trail development, with possible 50% funding from the provincial Rural Economic Development program.

The plan is to increase capital investment and economic activity, which would boost municipal revenue from business taxes and fees. The goal is to reduce the burden that now falls to residential taxpayers from 89% to 86% within five years.

The volunteer-based project started with the former Economic Development Committee (not currently operating), as a Business Retention and Expansion (BR&E) study of the Town’s agricultural sector. That was narrowed to the more manageable parameters of the equine sector. Council allocated $8,000 to the effort in the 2013 budget. 

The mandate of the Task Force was to create a list of local equine businesses and riders, develop and conduct a survey on the strengths and weakness of the local industry, and make recommendations to council to improve Erin’s economic outlook.

Ninety in-person interviews were conducted with a cross-section of business people and riders, on average 90 minutes in duration, which generated over 1,000 recommendations.

There is no official database of existing businesses in Erin, but the Task Force estimates there are almost 400 equine properties in the Town: about 143 equine businesses, 108 support services and 140 hobby farms.

Equine businesses provide about 750 local jobs (384 full-time), and generate an average of $72,000 in gross revenue each year, for a total of $18 million in Erin. Most equine locations operate two or three separate enterprises, and about half of operators earn 100% of their income from horse business.

Task Force Co-Chair Mary Venneman said, “We are not suggesting that equine be the only economic driver, but since there has been no economic development to date, we believe that this is a good place to start in creating a model on which future business for Erin can be analysed, measured, and moved forward through community consultation.”

She presented a petition of 200 names  to council in support of the following statement: “Because of the large number of horses and horse businesses that are located in Erin and contribute to the local economy, I believe the Town of Erin should have and Economic Development Strategy that recognizes and supports the horse industry.”

Councillor John Brennan, who was on the Task Force, said “it makes sense for Erin to capitalize on our natural assets, especially heading into the 2015 Pan Am Games where international equine competition will be held in neighbouring Caledon.”

Council passed a resolution on December 17: “Council recognizes that actively pursuing economic development is critical to ensuring a sustainable and equitable tax revenue base for the future. Council acknowledges that the equine industry is a major economic contributor in the Town of Erin, and Council adopts the equine industry as one of the first economic engines for the Town.”

A related private on-line enterprise called the Erin Equine Community Directory has been established by Janice Byer. It will offer listings and ads for related businesses, including feed, coaching, photography, apparel, supplies, construction and waste management.

“We can all benefit from a strong local network that connects expertise and resources,” said Task Force member Margaret Godson. Go to www.erinequinecommunity.com. or contact jbyer@equinewebdesign.ca for more information.

The report says, “We propose the idea of a trail hub to create Erin as the centre with trails radiating out to destination spots within a few hours ride such as event facilities and neighbouring communities (i.e., lnglewood, Cheltenham, Fergus, Elora) much like the spokes on a bicycle wheel. 

“Complementing the trail system would be a hitching post and trailer park centrally located so that riders can safely leave their horses and vehicles while they visit Erin. The fairgrounds would be an ideal location and offer a revenue stream for the Agricultural Society should they be willing to enter into a partnership.”

Task Force Co-Chair Brian Gentles said that council needs to think about a possible municipal fee for horse riders on local public trails, which would go towards the costs of maintaining the trails.

“They have to build themselves up as a positive, contributing neighbour to all these other people using the trails,” he said.

Mayor Lou Maieron said, “If we are going to maintain or expand our trail system, at some point we need to look at some money. If we have volunteers doing work, that’s tremendous, but there’s the capital cost of supplies.”

The Task Force envisions an investment of $500,000 in economic development over five years, with a payback in benefits over 6.6 years. They are hoping for a 10% increase in property values due to expansion and 200% due to new construction.

Horse properties are being lost closer to Toronto due to urbanization.

“Erin is appealing to riders not only for its proximity, but also for its natural setting, rural charm, established equine infrastructure and a strong equine community,” the report says.

“Equine is one of the few industries open to Erin that can generate economic  development without unduly changing the local landscape and character. The equine industry has the ability to generate more tax revenue – across all tax revenue classifications – than any other industry.”

Horse businesses include breeding, sales, training and conditioning. There is a competitive sector, with events, shows, racing and rodeos. There is riding instruction, with lessons, coaching and camps, plus boarding and trail rides.

Support services include clinics, judging, feed and hay, tack, clothing, facility maintenance and tourist accommodation such as bed and breakfast facilities.

New private infrastructure could include facilities for events, workshops, training and auctions.

The largest rider group is women in the 40-59 age range, with an average household income of $150,000. Most plan to continue riding for 20 years, with 75% riding at least once per week, and 20% every day.