Recognizing significant economic impact Fox Lea Farm has on Sarasota County, commissioners agree to $1 million grant for needed improvements for horse shows

Commissioner Detert sought her colleagues’ support for the funding

A horse and rider compete in an event at Fox Lea Farm. Image courtesy Sarasota County

What began as an effort to assist the owners of Fox Lea Farm in Venice with construction of a hurricane shelter for large animals has morphed into Sarasota County Commission support for $1 million in funding for general improvements to the farm’s facilities.

The goal, as Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), told the board members this week, is to enable Fox Lea Farm to remain the major economic driver it has been for years in the county.

During a November 2015 presentation to the county’s Tourist Development Council, Laurie Birnbach, a representative of the farm, said that the facility’s nine horse shows in 2014 had an economic impact of about $10.9 million, and participants accounted for 14,464 room nights at Sarasota County accommodations —  putting “heads in beds,” as staff members of Visit Sarasota County characterize the latter effect.

During her report to her colleagues as part of their regular meeting on Sept. 28, Commissioner Nancy Detert asked that they support her request to direct County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and his staff to work with the owners of Fox Lea Farm on the hurricane-hardening project. She had been told the overall expense would be $2 million, Detert added, so she proposed that the county cover half that amount.

Chair Alan Maio immediately agreed with the proposal, and Commissioner Michael Moran talked of the “massive, massive” economic impact that the farm has. “People come from all over the world to that facility.”

Following the remarks, Lewis asked for flexibility in working out the best funding options. The board members agreed to that.

Diving into the economic impact stats

This is a view of jumps for a grand prix event at the farm. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Dec. 7, Rissler explained that Fox Lea Farm has grown to the point where it hosts more than 42 equestrian events each year. A staff memo in the agenda packet for that meeting added that the farm “consistently drives tens of millions of dollars into the local economy year after year.”

A chart on the farm’s website says its total economic impact on the county in 2007 was $36,972,000. In 2020 — even though the facility was shut down for 10 weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic — the economic impact was $81,543,560.

Established in 1983, Rissler said, the farm comprises a little more than 46 acres in Venice. It has been family-owned and operated for three generations, she added.

This economic impact chart is provided on the Fox Lea Farm website. Image from the website

Each year, she continued, the farm produces 12 nationally rated shows, eight regionally rated shows and eight unrated hunter-jumper shows. Altogether, Rissler said, those events generate more than 40,000 room nights annually — again, “heads in beds.”

For the past two years, she noted, Fox Lea Farm has been the top economic impact driver in the county, beating out Nathan Benderson Park near University Parkway.

However, Rissler continued, the facility is in need of improvements to maintain its standing in the equestrian competition.

Details of the proposal

“All-weather footing has become the number one determining factor as to where people choose to show,” said a slide Rissler presented to the board members.

“You need to have the right footing,” — just as a world-class baseball complex has to have the right kind of field, she noted.

The slide said that the footing would be replaced in the main jumper ring, the grass grand prix ring, the main hunter ring, and the schooling — or practice — ring.

This is the proposal for the improvements. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With those improvements completed, Rissler pointed out, Fox Lea would be able to attract more and higher-caliber competitions.

The staff memo in the agenda packet also emphasized, “Fox Lea Farm has reached a critical and pivotal point in its history and must refresh and upgrade its facility to leading-edge standard, or risk becoming irrelevant in the face of competition from two multimillion-dollar facilities that have opened in Florida in the past year.”

As visitors come to events at the farm, Rissler told the commissioners, they will have the opportunity to learn more about Sarasota County and the amenities it offers, including its beaches and its arts and cultural programs. People attending horse shows in Venice year after year might decide not only to return to the county on vacation, Rissler continued, but later to purchase a home in the community and perhaps even relocate a business to the county.

Staff proposed a $1-million Reimbursement Grant Agreement between Fox Lea Farm and the county, using funds that had been moved from the county’s Economic Development Incentive Fund back into the General Fund.

If the board members agreed to the grant recommendation and authorized County Administrator Lewis to execute it, Rissler said, then staff would draft the agreement and proceed to finalize it with Fox Lea Farm.

Board approbation for Fox Lea Farm

This graphic shows the facilities at Fox Lea Farm. Image from the farm’s website

“I would love to make a motion on this,” Commissioner Detert said at the conclusion of the presentation. The farm, she added with a chuckle, “has only recently been discovered after being in my community for 45 years. Those of us who have been to their events [know the facility is] spectacular. … The horses are just gorgeous.”

In seconding her motion, Commissioner Christian Ziegler called the action a “no-brainer,” adding that horses valued at $1 million compete at the farm. He has friends across the state who post on Facebook whenever they go to events there, he said, concurring about the facility’s attraction to out-of-town residents.

In fact, Ziegler added, he believes the commissioners should do more to assist the Fox Lea Farm owners with any improvements they need. He encouraged the family members to ask for extra help if they require it.

Commissioner Moran noted that he is the commission’s representative on the Visit Sarasota County Board of Directors. That group had discussed Fox Lea Farm’s situation in-depth, he added. This funding request, he said, is a matter not of “Build it and they will come” but “Build it so they won’t leave.”

Chair Maio readily offered support for the motion, noting that his wife, his daughter-in-law and his granddaughter are all riders.