by BETH ALTENA
An abandoned 100-year-old barn in Rockford—now renovated and rebuilt to house eight horses, equipment and feed—is just the first phase of the Kent County Sheriff’s Mounted Division complex. On Thursday, Nov. 17, a crowd of city and county officials and the public heard what to expect within the next year for a compound that will include a public observation area, classrooms, an indoor arena, a stable for over a dozen horses, a training obstacle course and wooded riding trails.
Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma spoke before onlookers in the chilly air of the structure, describing the funding of the training center and home of the mounted unit as an example of public and private partnership. The house, barn and 30-plus-acre property at 4687 Kroes Street (east of Rockford High School) were donated to Kent County in the 1990s.
“It was very evident no one agency could fund a mounted division,” Stelma explained.
Housed at the Kent County Honor Camp, the division became homeless in January of this year. “When Camp O’Mally closed, that closed the mounted division,” Stelma explained.
Sixth months ago Roger Sabine, director of the Kent County Parks and Recreation Department, invited members of the sheriff’s department to walk through the property as a possible new home for the equine law enforcement unit. “When we walked around the property, we were sort of breathless,” Stelma said of his officers’ reaction to the proposal.
“This goes way beyond law enforcement,” said Chad Wieber, project advisor.
Wieber was put in charge of development of the mounted unit in September two years ago when it became clear that the duties were too much to incorporate into those of the Kent County Sheriff’s Department (KCSD) Traffic Division.
“Our outreach will be outstanding and go beyond search and rescue,” said Wieber, adding that the training center will “certainly be an important facility,” with an indoor arena that will be available for high school equestrian teams. He said the classrooms, stables and other elements of the complex will ensure it as a destination for school groups and inner-city education programs.
Members of the sheriff’s department have been working on the grounds, barn and garage of the property for the last six months, clearing weed trees from the pasture, building a riding ring, and stabilizing the barn structure. “This was a chance to show our true colors, to breath some life into the property,” said Wieber.
He described the condition of the grand old barn as in need of help. “The roof had shrubs growing on it and grass on the north side,” Wieber said. “There were holes and cracks and very few support posts in the basement. There were no stalls. The garage had doors rotting, paint cracking and the window were broken out.”
The mounted unit has been funded, in part, by nonprofit efforts. Since its inception in 2005 with a KCSD budget of zero, the equine law enforcement unit has been very active. An age-old tradition predating the creation of the first office police department, mounted units have recently re-emerged as a very effective and efficient tool. Within two years, the KCSD Mounted Unit grew to 20 trained deputies and volunteers and eight horses. The units serve as crowd control, crime control, emergency search and rescue, and are highly effective in community policing and youth interaction.
KCSD Mounted Unit also is active in downtown events and parades, at the Michigan Veterans facilities where they participate in Horses For Heroes, working with veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other difficulties due to injuries in service. With the new facility in Rockford, the department will be able to be more active in programs for kids at risk and other projects.
With Phase One complete, the department looks to fund the other two phases—planned for completion in the summer of 2012. No government funds are available for the mounted unit or the development of the property. To date, all monetary costs have been covered by the KCSD and the Traffic Squad Safety and Community Action Fund, a 501(c)3 committed to privately raising funds for the building and ongoing maintenance.
The cost for Phase Two, which includes locker rooms, a new permanent stable and paddock with stalls for up to 14 horses, three-stall garage for trailers, offices, conference rooms, an obstacle training course, riding trails and more, is estimated at $875,000. Phase Three, the indoor arena, public restrooms, public meeting rooms, classroom space, and indoor public observation area, is an estimated $890,000.
Naming and special donor recognition sponsorships are available and more information can be found at www.kentcountymountedunit.org.
In addition to the uses by the mounted division, the facility will be available for 4-H competition and clinics, local high school and collegiate equestrian practice and competition, clinics and events sponsored by the Michigan Hunter Jumper Association (MHJA), Michigan Quarter Horse Association (MQHA), Michigan Horse Show Association (MHSA) and other organizations.
“A well-developed, trained and deployed mounted unit is an admirable goal for Kent County,” said Wieber. “There is truly a need for such an interesting project.”