It's easy to see why horse lovers, golfers, mountain bike enthusiasts and festival attendees have such great things to say about their experiences at the Georgia International Horse Park. The 1996 Olympics and the creation of the GIHP were a vital part of the history of Conyers and Rockdale County. The following is how the GIHP came to be in Conyers.
The Horse Park History
During the late 1980s, the City of Conyers, Georgia, which owned and operated the water and wastewater system for both Conyers and Rockdale County, began researching alternative methods of wastewater disposal. Like many communities, Conyers was facing increasingly stringent federal and state guidelines regarding wastewater discharges into rivers. One solution is a process called land application, which involves spraying treated wastewater on such green areas as grass and trees. The wastewater is not treated to the levels required for discharge into streams, but it still is sanitary for use on athletic fields and golf courses. City officials found that in order to expand the City's wastewater treatment capabilities, it would be better to use the land application process; and in 1990, the City identified a 1,139 acre tract of land located in a less-developed portion of Rockdale County as a site suitable for land application. Working with its engineers, the City decided that the site would meet the land application needs.
Due to the expense of the property, the City Manager and the City Council felt it would be advisable to find additional uses for the property. Clearly, the purchase of the property would be more acceptable to the community if the City could also demonstrate additional uses that would meet community needs. Earlier in 1990, Conyers and Rockdale County had jointly adopted a Comprehensive Land Use Plan. This plan identified a deficit in park and recreational space throughout the community. City leaders also recognized the need for a civic center or conference center facility because the local governments and local businesses were faced with the problem of inadequate facilities for large meetings, performances, and public gatherings. City officials hoped to construct a hotel/conference center facility on the property, as well as to develop a public golf course. To the initial dismay of local officials, a feasibility study revealed that a hotel/conference center was not practicable. In exploring other recreational opportunities however, a consultant reported that state-of-the-art equestrian facilities would be feasible and desirable. According to the study, the State of Georgia was lacking a permanent facility suitable for hosting local, regional, national, and international competitions. Research indicated that thousands of horse enthusiasts throughout the State were eager to obtain show and competition facilities. Such a facility would be feasible economically, compatible with land application, and would provide additional recreational needs, including athletic fields and a public golf course. City officials welcomed the idea and began to explore ways of making it a reality.
The 1996 Centennial Olympics
September 18, 1990, was a momentous day in the history of Atlanta. It was the day the City of Atlanta was awarded the bid to host the 1996 Summer Olympiad. But this news had a significant effect on the City of Conyers' hopes of developing an equestrian complex. The plan for the 1996 Summer Games included developing facilities to host the equestrian events at a site only 30 minutes from Conyers. City officials knew that if the events were held at a site located close to Conyers, it would make Conyers' plan impractical. So, City officials decided the only way to make the City's plan for the equestrian complex a reality was by hosting the 1996 Olympic Equestrian Events. This plan began to come alive when local leaders learned that the site originally slated to host the equestrian events would not be hosting them after all. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) would be looking for another site.
Bringing the Team Together
Conyers officials began the effort to win the bid to host the equestrian events. They agreed that winning the bid would accomplish many goals for the community, and that it would enable them to construct a permanent facility using substantial investment from the Olympic Committee. Officials with the City of Conyers realized that winning the equestrian events would rapidly and significantly enhance the community's identity. Local leaders also knew that improving the image would significantly improve the area's economic development capabilities. The team that now had been brought together continued to use the services of the real estate and economic development consultant who had been with the project since its inception. At this point, another consultant, a public relations and marketing firm was added. Its responsibility was to work with the entire team to assist with community public relations, as well as to work with the Atlanta media. Throughout the project, the public relations consultants provided assistance and advice to key issues. The team also was expanded to include the engineers for the water and wastewater system. These engineers worked on conducting soils and drainage studies and provided technical information related to the land application process. Finally, a sports facilities architect, who was also an experienced horseman, provided critical insight in conceptualizing the overall equestrian complex.
The Conyers-Rockdale Equestrian Task Force
City officials agreed that the only way to be successful was to make sure the entire project was a community effort. A group of about one hundred local leaders, business owners, and community residents were asked to attend an informational meeting to hear about the project and to serve on the Conyers-Rockdale Equestrian Task Force. The task force was charged with gathering support from local and regional horse enthusiasts and developing community support through education and special events. It was led by a steering committee of nine local leaders and chaired by a local businesswoman and community volunteer. Although no one working directly on the project had extensive knowledge of horses or horse competitions, research uncovered many experienced horse enthusiasts who could provide the necessary technical support. While the task force sought local and equestrian support, the steering committee worked on developing the concept to be submitted to ACOG.
The steering committee knew that in order to win the bid, the proposal had to accomplish several goals. First, it had to meet the specifications of the International Equestrian Federation, which is responsible for the equestrian events at all Olympic Games. Second, the proposal had to make sense from a business perspective. It had to be the smartest, most cost-effective, and most practical proposal that the ACOG would receive. Third, it must demonstrate use of the facilities after the Olympic Games. This component the committee emphasized as the "Olympic Legacy." The proposal for the venue had to be both a practical and an emotional winner. It had two advantages from the outset. First, Conyers is located only 25 miles from downtown Atlanta bisected by a major interstate. Second, the proposed site was undeveloped, allowing ACOG to design and construct the Olympic facilities exactly as they desired. But it needed something more, something unique and something permanent. Thus was born the Georgia International Horse Park, which combined equestrian facilities and public recreational facilities into one master plan. The expanded scope included museums, a restaurant, gift shop, indoor show arena, dressage arena, show-jumping arena, stables and practice areas, steeplechase track, a three-quarter mile track, a golf course and a campground. The goal of the Georgia International Horse Park is to provide a permanent equestrian complex that will meet the needs of all equestrians, from the backyard enthusiast to the Olympic competitor, while also providing recreational opportunities for community residents.
The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games disseminated a lengthy RFP allowing approximately three weeks to complete and return. Working under a tight deadline, the steering committee and the real estate/economic development consultant gathered and compiled the information. The steering committee also included a narrative about the community, profiles of the most instrumental community leaders, and color photographs. The steering committee had also decided to submit a video proposal with the written proposal. Since the written proposal had all of the necessary technical information that ACOG would need, the video proposal had to be creative and emotional. This tied in well with the two-pronged, intellectual and emotional approach to the bid. A private production committee produced the six-minute video, which was originally shot entirely on film and then transferred to video. This gave the final video a higher quality than if it had originally been shot on videotape. The steering committee worked with the production company in writing the script. Once the script was finalized the shooting began using only local residents as the actors. It was considered important to use only local people and settings in order to demonstrate the community support as well as the "believability" of the proposal. The final video was an inspiring story of an Olympic hopeful interwoven with the community's dream to host the 1996 equestrian events at the Georgia International Horse Park.
The Olympic Site Visit
There was still one more hurdle: the community was required to host a visit from members of the International Equestrian Federation and the American Horse Shows Association. This site visit was critical, because if these delegates did not approve the site, ACOG could not give it consideration. Two weeks advance notice of the visit would be given, and the delegates would want to tour the site from 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. On August 7, 1991, three national and international representatives and two ACOG representatives arrived by helicopter at the landing pad of the local hospital. This semiformal environment would facilitate introductions and opening comments, would demonstrate the community's intellectual and technological facets by showing them Rockdale Hospital and would allay any concern about medical care, a major factor in selecting Olympic venues.
Once they arrived at the hospital conference room, the agenda for the morning was distributed, and steering committee members began the presentation with some technical information. Later, the delegates and the participants went, by police escort, to a location on the proposed site. Their vehicles were marked with magnetic signs proclaiming "The Georgia International Horse Park, Conyers, Georgia". Once the group was on the site, the most technical aspect of the presentation began. Leaders and consultants provided information on the soils, the temperature fluctuations, wind patterns, topography, and so forth. The guests then went, in four-wheel drive vehicles, to inspect the site. Although the terrain was undeveloped, and the tour rather rough, the delegates spent considerable time riding and walking the entire 1,139 acres of land. When they had seen everything there, they were given lunch and a final presentation at a farm adjacent to the property. For approximately 30 minutes, delegates and participants informally talked together and got to know each other better. The luncheon allowed further opportunity for conversation and included an actual demonstration with youngsters and their horses. When the delegates lifted off in their helicopter, the feeling among those present was euphoric! Both the technical information and the sentiment had been successfully conveyed.
The wait began. Announcement of the awarding of the equestrian venue was promised for shortly after Labor Day. There were delays; however, and September came and went. As time passed, people began to feel less positive. Phone calls came from people connected with other venue-hopefuls claiming they had been awarded the venue. But it had been Conyers plan from the beginning to contact the ACOG as little as possible and not to attempt to use any influence or do any game playing.
October 21, 1991 arrived. Local officials were contacted and asked to meet with ACOG officials at their headquarters in Atlanta. When they returned, they had good news: the 1996 Olympic equestrian events had been awarded to the Georgia International Horse Park.
The Centennial Olympic Games
The summer of 1996 in Conyers, Georgia was an exciting and momentous time. Over 600,000 visitors visited the community during the period of the Centennial Olympic Games. Every day of competition at the Georgia International Horse Park was sold out. Spectators and athletes alike marveled at the beauty and grandeur of the Horse Park. As the spectators entered the boundaries of the Horse Park and approached the Grand Prix Stadium, they enjoyed the natural aesthetics of the site as the competitions were underway. For the athletes, the opportunity to compete in a new venue designed for their events was memorable. Many called the stables at the Horse Park the finest in the world, a Ritz-Carlton for horses. Athletes enjoyed the training facilities, the retail shops and the warmth and compassion exhibited by the thousands of volunteers and staff who made the competition possible.
What effect did these Games have outside of the Georgia International Horse Park? This is where the best part of the Olympic legacy lies. Not everyone had a ticket to see Jus de Pommes win the gold medal in Stadium Jumping or a ticket to watch the first-ever Olympic mountain biking competition. Yet, residents of Conyers, Georgia enjoyed the thrill and excitement of the Games. With 600,000 spectators passing through town, hotels and restaurants in Conyers were full. Visitors searched for the perfect souvenir in local shops and many visited the historic Downtown district. Conyers left a warm impression on those who visited the town for the first time.
Now that the Games are long gone, the legacy of the Olympic Games in Conyers, Georgia is easy to see. Tourism has arrived in Conyers. New hotels and restaurants open each year in Conyers and more and more visitors use the Conyers Welcome Center.
The Georgia International Horse Park, open year-round, hosts events nearly every day of the year. From equestrian and mountain biking events, the Georgia International Horse Park has grown to include concerts, fairs, festivals, obstacle course races, rodeos, dog shows, corporate outings and much more. With the Arnold Palmer designed Cherokee Run Golf Club at the Park and a hotel offering comfortable suites, the GIHP continues to live up to its motto of "Groomed for Greatness."
In addition, the Park includes a 173-acre nature preserve called the Big Haynes Creek Nature Center and an apartment complex called Keswick Village. The Nature Center offers guests a canoe launch, observation pavilion overlooking the wetlands, nature trails and discover stations allowing visitors to learn about natural plant and wildlife.
Event promoters like to bring their events to the GIHP because of its location and amenities. A show can only be successful if the participants have lodging, dining and shopping to support their event. Conyers has all this. With more than 1,200 rooms in Conyers, event participants have many choices for hotels. Nearly every major restaurant chain in the Southeast has a restaurant in Conyers. From specialty items to Southern cooking, event participants can find a meal to satisfy their tastes. Visitors will also find plenty of places to shop from antiques to original art. The Georgia International Horse Park is proving itself as the premier equestrian facility in the state and the future for the Horse Park looks very exciting. The legacy continues for the City of Conyers and the Georgia International Horse Park.