Horse Barn Builder: Rethinking the rural landscape

Think Tanks across the United States are calling it the “New Ruralism.”
From the Institute of Urban and Regional Development (IURD) to Sustainable Agricultural Education (SAGE), the call for “New Ruralism” raises the question: “Will it require a “new rural builder?”
SAGE president Sibella Kraus lays out the vision for New Ruralism, which she sees as a counterpart of the New Urbanism movement that has gained ground in U.S. cities over the past 20 years.

“New Ruralism would denote specific, named rural places located near an urban area and part of a broader metropolitan region.” These places would be considered the “food belt” of the metro area — or perhaps the “food shed,” just as rivers and streams are part of a region’s watershed.

“The primary land use would be small to medium scale sustainable agriculture integrated and overlapping with areas for wildlife and habitat management and for passive recreation,” Kraus continues.

Urban parks would be linked to rural “hiking, equestrian and biking trail systems.” To achieve the New Ruralist vision, she states, “The development and management of each agricultural preserve would be guided by a comprehensive plan” regulated by “a joint powers agreement between city and county agencies where necessary.”

Yet market forces also play a role in New Ruralism. One of the leading land developers to promote a New Ruralist concept is the St. Joe Company of Jacksonville, Fla., which owns some 850,000 acres, mostly in northwest Florida.

“Products developed under the New Urbanism and New Ruralism philosophies are targeted to satisfy the desires of two distinctly different niche markets,” states a 2005 company white paper.

“New Urbanism promotes community through planning that mandates the interaction of neighbors. The small home sites and close proximity of homes stimulate a sense of community.”

By contrast, the paper continues, “In a New Ruralism setting, community is more by choice with privacy options preserved. Larger home sites, often separated by nature preserves or agricultural land, offer a buffer from neighbors.” And while “Experiences in the New Urbanism setting are based on planned connections within the community,” a New Ruralist development “provides a setting where experiences are directly linked to the rhythms of nature: rise with the sun, fish with the tides, and rest with the moon.”

Developments are not primarily aimed at revitalizing existing small towns, but look to “create towns and resorts designed to recapture the sense of community that was once the defining characteristic of life in America’s small towns,” according to the St. Joe Company, which has “more than a dozen towns and resorts in development or on the drawing board.”
Targeted to baby boomers who are entering or nearing retirement, the developer’s “New Ruralism products are for people seeking a simpler life from a simpler time and wanting to reconnect with the land without the need to make a living from it.” Nevertheless, St. Joe points out, “Technology provides a way to reconnect with the world, but at a safe distance.”

Riding is the ‘new golf’
Many of the New Ruralist developments have an equestrian component, including riding trails and perhaps community stables, as well as room for homeowners to build their equine facilities. But these retreats — which may include concierge service to help residents plan daily activities —cater to a clientele that can afford the lifestyle.

In 2005 when St. Joe was opening its first Florida project, RiverCamps on Crooked Creek, land prices ranged from $20,000 to $45,000 per acre so that purchasers spent an average of $342,900 per homesite. (Other developments, located further inland, are projected to cost less).

A 2006 New York Times report on equestrian retreats found buyers putting down $350,000 per acre at Hidden Meadow Ranch in the White Mountains of Arizona. More modestly, a new central Florida development scheduled to open in January 2008, The Oaks of Lake City, is offering 236 lots in sizes of 1 to 5 acres at pre-construction prices from $59,900 to $174,900.

Developers’ interest in New Ruralist equestrian communities is driven by two factors. First, “Golf has shown signs of stagnation and even decline in the participation of its core members,” points out Michael Donovan, co-founder of Equestrian Services LLC, a provider and manager of turnkey equestrian amenities for communities and resorts throughout the United States. Based in Charlottesville, Va., the company is overseeing the equestrian component at The Oaks of Lake City on behalf of developer Dicks Realty.

Second, adds Donovan, “Horseback riding is the new golf, and participation continues to increase every year.” Riders constitute an attractive target market.

A study commissioned by the American Horse Council finds that the median household income of America’s two million horse owners is $60,000 per year. Twenty-one percent earn more than $100,000.

“In strong equestrian markets in particular, equestrian communities are selling three times faster and for a 10 percent higher price than comparable communities without an equestrian market,” reports Donovan. As an example he cites an equestrian community in Sacramento, Calif., where lots are “selling within 60 days and for $100,000 more than a comparable lot in a traditional or golf community, which is selling in 180 days.”

Buyers are attracted by amenities such as those offered at The Oaks of Lake City, a planned community set among 1,222 acres of mature oaks. It includes a 33-stall barn and competition-quality dressage arena; a hunter-jumper ring and covered round pen; ongoing equestrian programming; 15 miles of looped riding trails; and a cross-country course designed by Olympians David and Karen O’Connor.

The total package is being marketed as “the world’s first O’Connor Signature-branded equestrian facilities — a coup that, to the horse world, is analogous to a golf community landing the first Tiger Woods Signature course.

“The entire development is planned around the trail system,” explains Donovan. “We made sure that every estate lot has individual trail access. Of course, this development is so large that some lots on the far outskirts are a two-hour hack to the main barn, so we even put in equestrian ‘parks’ with local arenas as well.” Half of the 236 lots are designated as estates so that owners can also build their on onsite horse barns.

Back to the future
With big money being invested in upscale equestrian communities, is there any opportunity for rural builders to get in on the construction action? Or will deep-pocketed developers favor large contractors imported from the city?

And if New Ruralism becomes a movement that leads to more land-use planning and regulation, will the average rural builder be able to cut it? Many rural builders are already seeing suburban and exurban development coming into their territories. Counties and towns that once required no permits at all now have zoning boards, architectural review boards and rules for stormwater and manure management.

Possible answers to these questions are suggested by the experience of Landmark Structures, an Atlanta-area builder hired by Equestrian Services to construct the equestrian buildings at The Oaks of Lake City. The company’s secretary/treasurer, Jim Gibson, has been in post-frame construction since 1975 and established Landmark in 1986.

“Ninety-five percent of our work is equestrian-related,” Gibson reports, “and most of that work is with clients who buy a property within commuting distance of Atlanta, build a house there and want a barn.” Typical contracts average about $75,000, ranging from a low of $30,000 to a high of a half million dollars. “We’ve done all sizes of horse barns,” he says.

The Oaks of Lake City is Landmark’s first foray into a planned equestrian community. The opportunity came because Landmark is a Stockade Buildings dealer, and after Equestrian Services’ Donovan contacted Stockade to locate the nearest dealer to north central Florida.
Though the region has long been horse country and boasts many independent barn builders — and though Landmark had seldom worked beyond the Atlanta area, Gibson got on the short list for the project because of his affiliation with a national building supplier.
Ultimately, however, Landmark got the job because it met the client’s expectations for equestrian expertise and an ability to construct top-quality facilities on time and on budget.

Equestrian Services’ co-founder Jennifer Donovan explains that she and her husband “look at builders’ track records, whether they have experience with similar-sized facilities, and if they know the requirements of equestrian structures. Also, builders need to be team players, good communicators, willing to be flexible and to contribute ideas, and be committed to the overall vision of the project.”

For its equestrian projects across the country, Donovan says, her company typically develops a short list of three or four builders to interview. Those who qualify, she says, “have opportunities with us to build barns, stalls, arenas, run-in sheds, fencing, maybe even homes. So we’re looking for good builders all around the United States.”

Equestrian Services also develops relationships with horse equipment suppliers. At the Oaks of Lake City, for example, suppliers include Classic Equine (stall systems), Lifetime Lumber (fencing), Pro-Mat (flooring), Abacus (flooring), McElroy Metal (roofing), and Nelson Waterers.

Fortunately for Landmark Structures, in addition to its connection with a national supplier, the company could afford to keep someone full-time onsite in Florida. Gibson also traveled to the jobsite once a week, for periods of up to three days, during the seven months of construction which began in July 2007.

Country, without the ‘fuss”
Jennifer Donovan describes her development’s New Ruralist concept as “organized country, without the fuss.” It has the potential to impact rural builders as part of an overall movement to bring new development, money and increased planning to rural areas. “We’re on the forefront of ‘green’ design,” Donovan affirms, “particularly in our land-use planning.”

Rural builders — including those who are active in the equine construction market — may see some new opportunities from New Ruralism. But they may need to learn a lesson from other industries that have seen recent changes.

Local independent merchants, for example, have been challenged by the entrance of national retailers into small-town America. Those who survived became better marketers and more efficient operators, or they went out of business. Others survived by forging marketing partnerships with national brands.

In the same way, New Ruralism and increasing rural development may bring in new money and opportunity, but also creates higher expectations.

Rural builders may be challenged to improve the business side of their businesses, which may not be a bad thing. Others may go the way of mom-and-pop operators in other industries.

As Donovan of Equestrian Services confirms, “Our buyers are sophisticated and have high expectations.”

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