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Years ago, equestrians competed on cross-country courses at Knox Farm State Park.

Now there is a vision to return the horses, stables and high-caliber competition to the state-owned estate.

Trail rides, horse-drawn wagon and sleigh rides, educational programs and possibly an indoor riding arena also are part of the vision.

State parks officials want it all to happen as they look to revive the rich equestrian history of the former country estate of Buffalo’s Knox family.

The state has just started seeking proposals for businesses or qualified nonprofit organizations to design, construct and operate an equestrian center at the 633-acre park in East Aurora. The center would encompass 80 acres in the southeast quadrant of the park.

“This project will reintroduce a traditional use to the property,” said Harold H. Hagemann Jr., of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. “We have every expectation that there could be someone in there by this summer.”

The bids’s submission deadline is April 12.

The old equestrian center that still exists at the park was built in the early 1900s but has not operated in more than two years.

For many years, the state had a series of short-term contracts with operators, but most recently, Olympic equestrian Darren Chiacchia of Springville had a contract with the state. That was terminated by the state on Nov. 22, 2010. Since then, the equestrian area has not operated.

While it isn’t the first time the state has issued a request for proposals, this one is different because it promotes a public component along with the private enterprise. The request also provides the opportunity for development of an indoor arena, which could make it a year-round facility.

There are many privately owned small- to medium-sized equestrian centers in the area, but this would be on a larger scale with a public component in a public park.

The selected operator would be expected to develop an equestrian program in the existing facilities, add ones as necessary and also enhance the park.

In its announcement, the state emphasized that any proposed use must include a public benefit and purpose consistent with the property’s designation as a state park and bear all the costs of the program.

“We believe this is an exciting opportunity to develop a partnership with an operator to reintroduce equestrian activities at the park and leverage investment in the continued maintenance and improvement of the facilities,” Hagemann said.

With the contract, the state hopes to leverage some private-sector investment to help renovate some of the buildings; the renovation represents a significant expense, Hagemann said.

“We’re also offering in the contract for someone to build an indoor riding arena to train horses, give riding lessons, offer shows and events," he said.

“It’s another opportunity to continue the equestrian tradition and [expand] opportunities for people at the park.”

Anyone familiar with the property and the Knox family equestrian heritage knows that raising, breeding and training horses and polo ponies was a big part of the Knox Farm for years.

Extensive facilities there included stables, trails and a riding ring – all of which were included with the farm when the state bought the Knox summer estate for $5.1 million in 2000.

The idea of developing the equestrian center comes as public interest in the park continues to build. The state’s plans to improve the park and make extensive renovations are under way at the 14,400-square-foot, 12-bedroom mansion.

But a tight state fiscal climate has caused improvements to move along at a slower pace than officials would have liked.

“Hopefully, there’s a business person out there or nonprofit who sees the opportunity and is able to make a go of it,” Hagemann said.

A member of the nonprofit Friends of Knox Farm State Park organization lauded the state’s plans for the equestrian center.

“We like to see the buildings have a public purpose,” said Peggy Cooke.

“Making sure there is a public purpose and option of an indoor arena makes it more feasible for a private owner to come in and make a living.”

“The Friends of Knox would really like to see horses in those stables, and it’s good for the integrity of the buildings, for them to be occupied,” Cooke added.

“We hate to see any of the park buildings vacant.”

email: krobinson@buffnews.com