Jefferson County struggles to defend its equine industry

The oldest thoroughbred breeding farm in West Virginia was founded in 1939, in Jefferson County. A new business, following the opening of Charles Town Races in 1933. This thoroughbred track has a year-round meet. In nearly ninety years, it has helped the equine industry in the County to develop into a cluster that connects several sectors, from agriculture to tourism. There have been ups and downs and even a certain degree of economic decline in recent years. Horse racing added more attractions to bring in more public and revenue. More specific information can be found in this review, that gives some insights into the West Virginia horse racing industry.

The Jefferson County Foundation has recently published a fact sheet on the Economic Impact for the Equine Industry. The document is part of a campaign to oppose the rezoning of 500 acres of agricultural land by the city of Ranson and its transformation into an industrial zone. In particular, the Danish company Rockwool is trying to build a plant there to manufacture super-efficient insulation. The site of the proposed rezoning is less than six miles from Charles Town Races. There are also several breeding, training, and rehabilitation farms and facilities within the six-mile radius of the site in Ranson.  

According to the Foundation’s fact sheet, owners, breeders, and trainers create more than $70 million in direct business volume and $190 million in business volume in Jefferson County each year. Moreover, out of state owners, breeders and trainers bring in more than $50 million additional income by using local facilities. An earlier study by the University of West Virginia, “The Economic Impact of the Thoroughbred and Greyhound Racing Industries on West Virginia’s Economy 2012”, found that the total business volume of the two industries amounts to $321 million. That is about 12 percent of the leisure and hospitality sector statewide and supports more than 7,300 jobs. “This figure is equivalent to about 10 percent of employment in the state’s leisure and hospitality sector”, the authors of the study write. “Thoroughbred racing accounts for around three-fourths of the total economic impact of the two industries.”

The Jefferson County Foundation develops a very interesting argumentation not only on the quantity but on the quality of those jobs. They describe a “flexible job ecosystem” that helps create a healthy economy with broad participation in employment and consumption. Their point is that the equine industry “offers individuals of any educational background a variety of paths to achieve a good middle-income living.” The Foundation writes that many of those jobs offer an alternative to costly college education as they offer on-the-job training instead. Additional advantages are greater lifetime earnings and improved educational debt-to-earnings ratio for these workers. Non-traditional workers, who may not be employable by larger corporations, can find several job opportunities in the equine industry. A variety of full-time, part-time, flexible, and pick-up work is available.

Rockwool’s industrial project threatens the health of both humans and horses in Jefferson County. The legal and political battle on the zoning plan is raging. In the meanwhile, Charles Town Races has not only resumed its activities but let the public in too. The equine industry is fighting back.