Published: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 2:58 a.m.
Mohammad Rajaee doesn't own horses. He doesn't even ride horses. But he does like to watch them, and he does like making money.
Rajaee is co-owner of Canterbury Equestrian Showplace, a 160-acre beacon for horse lovers nationwide and the most prominent display of the horse culture of the Jonesville-Newberry corridor.
That heritage and its economy are still going strong - growing, even, according to Jonesville business owners. But some wonder if Gainesville's creeping suburbia, which has engulfed Jonesville, could eventually make horses something seen only on subdivision-entrance signs as Newberry Road is four-laned and primed for development.
"We are very happy with the investment and very happy the growth is going that way. They are four-laning it, and the growth is going to the west," Rajaee said. "For the time being, we are going to keep it as a horse showplace. We do not have any intentions to sell it at this point, but you never know what will happen in the future.
"We've been approached by a few developers, but we do not really want to sell it at this point. We are happy as long as we are making money on it," he said.
By all appearances, Canterbury is doing well. The shows staged there draw thousands of competitors from across the country. Many board horses there, or elsewhere in the area, for several months in the winter and spring while they compete throughout the South.
That is the high end of the horse tradition in Jonesville and Newberry. Smaller boarding and training ranches, breeders and homeowners with a horse or two on their acreage are clustered there. They support an industry of tack shops, feed stores, farriers and veterinarians.
Patty Fiorentino, office manager of Mid-Florida America's Country Stables in Jonesville, said horses are a part of life in the community.
"It's fun. You go to the feed store and everyone is talking about their horses," she said. "You have a lot of backyard horses around here. We like it that way - knowing everybody, and they all talk forever about their horses and what they are doing."
Developers have adopted the horse motif. Jonesville's first supermarket that opened there about three years ago isn't just Publix, it's Publix at Steeplechase. Subdivisions include the Jockey Club, Saddlebrook and Steeplechase. Even the mini-storage complex is called Steeplechase.
Despite the growth of Jonesville, area horse enthusiasts say the culture is as strong as ever.
"I don't think the growth has hurt the industry at all. It's growing in the area," said Tracie Poole of Mid-West Feed on Newberry Road. "Canterbury is having show after show after show. There are a lot of people with backyard horses - two or three horses. And there are still a lot of the boarding and sporting stables."
Canterbury hosts shows in the full range of riding disciplines from the artistic dressage to the athletic cross-country events. Competitors include Olympic team members and teenage wannabe Olympians.
It has 216 stalls, 16 paddocks, 16 wash racks, 20 recreational vehicle hook-ups and a covered arena that seats 2,000. The facility had its busiest year ever in 2002 and already has more bookings for this year, Manager Wendy Low said.
The competitors and boarders spend a lot of money. Becky Douglas is a riding trainer and competitor from Minnesota who has set up camp at Canterbury for the early season shows.
"Most of the active, competitive community make it a point of coming south - specifically Florida - for the winter season. They rent small farms and rely on show facilities like Canterbury for training," she said. "The sport is becoming so popular that, where you might have seen 200 at a horse trial a few years ago, now it is not uncommon to see 500.
"So the number of horse farms that need to be available for two to three months needs to go up, not down. I'm going to be here three months and with hotels or seasonal rentals, boarding, feed - I'll spend about $50,000 over that period of time."
Enough stables and farms are available now. But for how long is a question some in the area are beginning to ask.
Low said horse enthusiasts continue to move into the area, many attracted by Canterbury. But a good number are also moving to Gilchrist County, Alachua and other spots away from Jonesville-Newberry.
"It's kind of more the area west of here, not necessarily Jonesville anymore," Low said.
Phil Hawley, owner of Hawley Realty and Investment, brokered much of the new commercial development in Jonesville, including Publix.
Hawley and other business leaders, including Newberry Chamber of Commerce President Susan Parker, believe growth will continue - especially along Newberry Road.
"We feel it is going to really open us up. You can see that with the new apartment complex, Brooksville, on the edge of Jonesville. It's starting there and it's growing toward Newberry," Parker said. "We are expecting a lot of attention our way and we are trying to market Newberry - let people know that we are here and that we have properties available.
"I think you are going to see Newberry spread in the direction of Jonesville, and Jonesville spread in the direction of Newberry."
Newberry annexed about 10,000 acres into the city in the 1990s, including a big chunk around the Florida Rock cement plant. The rate of growth and the type of development that is allowed will be determined by land-use regulations and zoning in Newberry, unincorporated Alachua County and the county comprehensive plan.
Hawley, for instance, said that some of the newer subdivisions with 5- and 10-acre lots draw horse owners and nonequestrians who just like the aura.
"I think the appeal is that there are still a lot of dirt roads where people can raise their horse and get an expanse of place to ride the horse. We've developed nine gated communities out on County Road 241, and about half of them are 5-acre parcels that can accommodate a horse," Hawley said. "A lot of people like to live in that horsey atmosphere, but not everyone likes to get up early and feed the horse and clean the stall - it's nice for my neighbor but not for me.
"People really are attracted to that - the pastoral look. A lot of it is oriented to the country gentleman farmer who likes a horse or a maybe a few cows."
But commercial zoning, and zoning that allows subdivisions with small lot sizes, could discourage horse ownership. And as land values increase, owners of large tracts will be more inclined to sell for development.
Some believe higher land values will make it more profitable for owners to sell land than to keep it for horse farming or boarding.
Fiorentino said changes are already evident. She noted that Southern Showplace, an equestrian facility behind Publix that catered more to rodeo-type riding, is closing. Meanwhile, a new low- to middle-income apartment complex is being built in Jonesville - the community's first apartment complex.
"For us, things are going good. But other than that, you just don't know. You have to make the business profitable or else the owners will sell," she said. "What's so hard is that you get city people from out of state who move here and who don't want dogs barking or animals running.
"This is a farm area and you try to keep it separate, but it's getting harder. We all would like to keep it the way it is, but there is so much traffic and so many things going on that you just don't know what's going to happen."
Rajaee and a partner, Ocala insurance agent Michael Moezzi, bought Canterbury at auction for $675,000 in 1997. He said he goes to Canterbury a couple of times a month to watch horse shows.
The land has increased in value since the purchase, Rajaee said, and will continue to increase as the area develops. He said that will increase the pressure to sell.
"They are four-laning Newberry Road and the growth is going to the west," he said. "It is valuable land. We'll see what happens."
Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or swirkoc@ gvillesun.com.
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