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In true storybook fashion, the dedication of local equestrians combined with an unexpected turn of events saves a beloved local horse show facility in Florida from development.

By Jennifer M. Keeler for ELCR

Canterbury Equestrian Showplace covered arena

For almost thirty years, Canterbury Equestrian Showplace has been a cornerstone of the local horse show community in Alachua County, Fla. Conveniently located on 212 acres in the city of Newberry, Fla. just north of Ocala, the Canterbury facility was built from the ground up by original owners Alan and Carlie Evans. After it began hosting events in 1991, Canterbury quickly became a regional destination where generations of horse lovers gathered almost every weekend to enjoy a wide variety of equestrian events.

“When Canterbury first opened, it was the only real showgrounds in north central Florida,” Carlie Evans explained. “We opened long before the Jacksonville Equestrian Center, the Florida Horse Park, Grand Oaks, and all the others that are now mainstays of equestrian competition in the area. We started a whole new equestrian industry here in Alachua County that was about so much more than the backyard trail horse, and I’m proud to say I believe it made a huge difference to our local equestrian community for decades.”

But after changing hands several times over the years, Canterbury was in trouble. Like nearby cities of Ocala and Gainesville, business in Newberry was booming and the areas around the showgrounds were quickly becoming busier and more developed as population grew rapidly. Ultimately sold to a developer, piece after piece of Canterbury’s equestrian land was sold off and cross-country fences replaced with vinyl-clad single-family homes until only a core parcel of 36 acres with barns and arenas remained.

“Starting about four years ago, it really started to be a battle with the owner to convince him to keep it open at all, even though it remained as the only public equine facility in Alachua County,” said Evans, who, through the years, had continued to manage some events at the showgrounds long after selling the property in 1997. “He threatened many times to just demolish all the buildings because, from a financial standpoint, a facility like Canterbury is very expensive to keep up and usually doesn’t make any money.”

Satellite view of Canterbury venue and surrounding development

Retired Florida Museum of Natural History curator and lifelong equestrian Dr. Susan Milbrath also became alarmed while attending a horse show at Canterbury in early 2017. “I remember the number of houses was getting closer and closer to the competition areas and wondering ‘when is this going to stop?’” she recalled. “So I got together with some of my friends and we decided that we had to try to do something to save it. We thought that forming some sort of group would give our efforts a little more strength and credibility.” As a result, the Preservation of Alachua County Equestrian Spaces (PACES) was born.

Several years earlier, fellow PACES founding member Anne Shermyen and several other equestrians tried to convince the City of Newberry to purchase Canterbury. While supportive of the idea, city leaders did not have the financial resources available at the time. Then in the fall of 2017, Milbrath reached out again to one of Newberry’s city commissioners for possible assistance, but still had no luck. Desperate enough to try to save Canterbury, Milbrath and PACES members considered trying to purchase the property themselves – a heroic gesture, but not one that any of them was prepared to do. A possible land swap with the developer was also investigated, but ultimately abandoned. “We were running out of options, but I didn’t want to take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Milbrath.

Not long after, PACES leaders reached out to Tom Kay, Executive Director of the Alachua Conservation Trust (ACT) – a move which Milbrath credits with changing the entire dynamic of their efforts. With help from Kay, Milbrath realized that a critical component to any potential effort to save Canterbury was to gather accurate economic information about the facility.

“We personally paid for an appraisal of Canterbury, and then Anne [Shermyen] worked with Ellen Ettenger (then the manager of Canterbury) to gather data on income and events at the facility,” Milbrath explained. Shermyen also decided to contact Dr. Alan Hodges of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) in the spring of 2018, and he agreed to study the local and regional economic impact of the property.

The resulting report demonstrated Canterbury’s huge economic impact on Alachua County, which included 51 jobs, $1.45 million in labor income, $2.46 million in value added contribution to the county GDP, and $4.43 million in industry output or business revenues. “Part of this is because many of the horse shows that come to Canterbury aren’t just local – they are regional events which draw people from all over the Southeast who stay in our hotels and eat in our restaurants,” Milbrath added.

This photo shows the residential housing surrounding the Canterbury competition venue

In the meantime, just six months after Milbrath had initially reached out to the city, a perfect storm of circumstances had government officials looking much more favorably at Canterbury. The latest round of elections had resulted in a shakeup in the commissioner ranks, with many more supporters of the facility now on the roster. Secondly, after an extensive search for a new site for long-overdue county fairgrounds, the original location sought by local officials fell through due to wetland conservation issues. This opened the door for Canterbury as a new option, with the added bonus of building public support beyond just the equestrian community.

Finally, funding that had already been allocated by the government for a new fairgrounds, combined with sales tax revenue through the local Wild Spaces Public Places program (which was designed to buy new conservation and park lands as well as improve infrastructure), could all be utilized for the county to purchase Canterbury outright. As an added bonus, the findings of the IFAS economic impact report allowed the county to apply for and receive grant funding from the state to help with property improvements.

In a true fairy tale ending, in the fall of 2018 the Alachua County Commission voted to purchase Canterbury Equestrian Showplace for $3.8 million, with all work completed to close on the property in August of 2019. Renamed as the Alachua County Agricultural and Equestrian Center, the property will now be the new permanent home of the Alachua County Fairgrounds. Funding is also available to completely refurbish and upgrade the facility. In addition, the Alachua County Agricultural Cooperative Extension Offices will soon be relocated onto an adjoining five-acre parcel.

So what made all these efforts successful in saving Canterbury? Kay pointed out that people like Milbrath and Shermyen were able to organize quickly and were very motivated and knowledgeable. Combined with ACT’s experience in saving spaces and positive mediation with the property owner, it was a winning combination. “The leaders of PACES were very instrumental in working with IFAS in being able to make the economic case for Canterbury and its impact on the community,” Kay explained. “I think this was literally a game changer in the minds of several of the commissioners who ended up voting for this.

“People showed up to every single meeting in good numbers to support Canterbury. They were prepared and did their due diligence. Having all of those details was a big factor in this being a success story,” Kay continued. “If you were to start from scratch and build up a brand new facility, it would have been in the area of $12-15 million; and while Canterbury wasn’t a cheap piece of property and there will be considerable investment in upgrades, they still were able to come out way ahead and save millions of dollars for the county.”

With a bright new future for the facility, Milbrath and other members of PACES hope to continue to work with county officials in an advisory capacity for Canterbury. “We’ve already provided some recommendations to the county manager to help optimize the usefulness and efficiency of the facility,” Milbrath said. “All of our efforts combined with being in the right place at the right time. We got lucky in a lot of ways.”

“I think an important lesson from this is that one needs to build community coalitions of elected officials and staff, private citizens, and non-profits, as they were all essential to this successful project,” Shermyen added. “I hope this prompts others to not be discouraged and take action when they think it is important. Even if there are failures, keep trying again as you may succeed in the future with a broader coalition.”

In one last perfect finishing touch, the county brought the Evans’s back on to manage the facility, which, after extensive construction, will not only focus on holding future equestrian events, but will also play host to a multitude of other agricultural and community activities. “It’s just incredible how Canterbury was so close to completely disappearing and came back from the brink,” Evans concluded. “Now we’re really getting excited about what the future holds for us and for horse shows in our county.”