Gloucester County's DREAM horse park: Underachieving, meeting goals, or overreaching?

Gloucester County's DREAM Park appears to be generating indirect benefits - the state Department of Tourism reported a 6 percent jump in visitor spending.
Gloucester County's DREAM Park appears to be generating indirect benefits - the state Department of Tourism reported a 6 percent jump in visitor spending. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 11, 2011

Gloucester County's $20 million DREAM Park was billed as a regional gem that would generate money and turn a longtime dredging dump site in rural Logan Township into a tourist attraction.

But the three-year-old equestrian center, formally known as the Delaware River Equine, Agriculture and Marine Park, has been losing money, fighting lawsuits from disgruntled employees, and drawing criticism from some who say it should be privatized.

County managers say they just need more time - it's a start-up, after all.

"They're doing their best, but they have a long way to go," said Barbara Mantini, board member of the Garden State Paint Horse Club. It has held 11 events at the park, where activities range from jumping competitions and dressage to polo and for-credit college courses.

Those who lobbied for the park, including State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), trumpet its benefits: attracting tourists, creating jobs, and providing recreation.

"In the long run, taxpayers will be happy to have this positive rather than the negative of a pile of mud," said Sweeney, who was freeholder director when the county decided to build the center.

But Republican Freeholder Larry Wallace calls the park "a shining example of something government shouldn't get involved in."

The centerpiece is a 45,000-square-foot indoor arena that features Bose speakers and seating for about 600 spectators. There also are a covered outdoor arena, three training fields, 238 stalls for equestrian housing during shows, and private boarding facilities for up to 74 horses.

The Gloucester County Improvement Authority (GCIA) runs the operation. The county spent about $4 million on land for the park and roughly $16 million to build it. Since opening, it has lost about $1.1 million a year in operating expenses.

In addition, planning mistakes have proved costly.

The indoor arena's ventilation system sits idle because it sucked too much dust into the building.

The county also paid $100,000 to replace the arena's dirt footing because it wasn't the right mix for most riders.

"It's turned into a taxpayer nightmare in terms of money being flushed down the toilet," Wallace said.

The park appears to be generating indirect benefits. A report from the New Jersey Department of Tourism reported a 6 percent jump in visitor spending for Gloucester County in 2010, ranking the increase first in the state. DREAM Park facilities director Donna Clement said equestrian enthusiasts come from as far as North Carolina and Texas to show their horses.

Jack Haggerty, general manager for the Holiday Inn in Swedesboro, three miles from the park, estimated that his revenue rose $250,000 last year due to events at the center.

"Business has been down the past three years, so to gain some of that back from another source is great," he said.

Haggerty, however, also suggested that the park might be better off under private ownership.

"I don't think [the county] would be best at running a horse park," he said. "They're kind of having to learn as they go."

Since 2008, with the exception of its short inaugural season, the park has held about 40 shows per year, including dog events. Plans call for 200 acres of public riding trails and a horse-driving track.

The DREAM Park concept originated in the 1990s, partly to block the Delaware River Port Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers from continuing to dump dredge spoils at the site.

Sweeney championed the cause, saying Gloucester County should not bear the burden of a dredging project that benefitted Philadelphia's shipping industry.

"All the jobs would have been in Pennsylvania," Sweeney said.

Since then, the GCIA and South Jersey Port Corp. have created a port in Paulsboro, with dredge materials trucked to Gloucester County's landfill in South Harrison Township. The cost for that project, including dredge work in the Delaware, is estimated at $300 million.

Meanwhile, plans for deepening the Delaware River channel near Philadelphia and Camden are on hold due to legal challenges; an 11-mile stretch is complete.

Campaign-finance records show that Sweeney received funds from contractors who won bids for the DREAM Park and the Paulsboro port:

DREAM Park's designer, Joseph F. McKernan Architects, and the firm's owner, Joseph McKernan, gave a combined $15,700 from 2001 to 2011.

Joseph Jingoli & Son Inc., construction manager when the park was built, and its key executives gave $13,500 over the decade.

Weeks Marine, which won a $48 million contract to dredge in preparation for the Paulsboro terminal, gave $2,000 to Sweeney's 2002 Senate campaign and $1,000 to his 2008 reelection bid.

None of those donors is among Sweeney's top contributors, and the senator said there was no pay-to-play.

"Should I vow never to do business with anyone who gives contributions to political campaigns?" he asked.

George Strachan, acting director for the GCIA, said the authority bids all contracts on a competitive basis.

The GCIA is working on a five-year plan to reverse DREAM Park's financial losses and take advantage of the state's equestrian industry, valued at an estimated $647 million per year excluding racing activities, according to a 2008 Rutgers University study.

Mantini, who said the park had helped her Paint Horse Club attract more members, had her own thoughts on how the park could turn a profit, starting by reducing its $754,000 payroll.

"They have too many people for what they really need to do," Mantini said. "All we need from them is for someone to handle the trash and clean the bathrooms. We take care of our own horses."

Among the park's 20 employees are six maintenance operators, each paid more than $38,000, and eight barn operators, who make just under $29,000.

This year, the center raised boarding fees and started charging for services it once provided free, such as dirt grooming and electrical use during after-show cleanups.

"They should look at cuts rather than upping the fees on us," Mantini said.

Clement said rates were based on prices at similar parks.

Mantini also said money could be made by opening vacant private stalls to show participants. "Stalls are the way you make your money," she said.

Samantha Hodgson, 24, of Southhampton, bristled at the notion of visiting horses' sharing space with her Arabian stallion, Zar, which she boards at the park. "You don't know what shots they've had," she said.

Lawsuits have also plagued the venue.

In 2009, four female employees filed a sexual-harassment suit against the GCIA and a former maintenance supervisor, John Palimeno, saying he subjected them to comments derogatory toward women. A fifth employee sued in March, alleging she was intimidated into testifying favorably in the 2009 suit.

Palimeno denies that he made derogatory comments. The suit is ongoing.

Despite the park's troubles, Strachan remains confident.

DREAM Park, he said, "was never envisioned to make a profit overnight, but we're working toward it."


Contact staff writer Joshua Adam Hicks at 856-779-3893, jhicks@philly.com, or @Reporter_Hicks on Twitter.

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