GULFPORT One of the least known events in South Mississippi is arguably one of the most effective at bringing in big bucks for business.
Officials of the 16th annual Gulf Coast Winter Classics Horse Show, which began Feb. 5 and ends March 16, project an economic impact this year of nearly $43 million. For the first time, the show will offer $1 million in prize money and awards.
As a result, the event has turned what is normally a down time for some business owners into the best time of the year.
Bob Taylors Half Shell Oyster House in Gulfport stands to make more money in February and March that it will all year.
This thing is a whirlwind of an economic impact for us, Taylor said. This is bigger than Cruisin the Coast; bigger than the summer; bigger than Mardi Gras.
Kevin Fish, Taylors partner and chief number cruncher, is just as excited.
I go over every number every night, he said There is no question without a shadow of a doubt that the horse show is the biggest event for us during the year. Its easy to say that there is a 15 to 20 percent increase in sales during the six weeks of the horse show compared to the previous weeks.
The biggest reason for the hefty small business impact: The show caters to affluent participants and spectators 97 percent of whom come from outside Mississippi who stay on the Coast for up to eight weeks. Nearly 12,000 bookings for hotel, condo or RV site stays and 60,000 dinners served were estimated for the 2013 event. The confluence of time and money creates a lot of commerce.
They are just great people, Fish said. They arent New York snobby, but they do have an understanding of quality.
The average household income of those involved in the hunter/jumper industry, which is the kind of competition featured at the Gulf Coast Winter Classics, is $325,000, according to the United States Equestrian Federation and The American Horse Council.
These people have money, said Janet McCarroll, show owner and coordinator. They go and do what they want and they dont do coupons. You dont necessarily notice them because they dont all wear big cowboy hats and belt buckles. Its a different crowd, but they do spend their money.
Another business that sees a direct impact from the horse show is Fazzios Home & Farm Center Inc., which is just 4 miles from the shows home base at Harrison County Fairgrounds on County Farm Road in Gulfport. Owner Kenny Fazzio said he has an increase in sales during the classic, particularly hay and shavings for horse stalls.
The hay is local, and that also helps the economy, Fazzio said.
Its grown by the people we sell fertilizer to. Its business to business. The dollar goes from hand to the other.
As a rider and trainer of her horses as well as those for other clients, Kathy Rheinheimer of Zionville, Ind., has attend the Gulf Coast Winter Classics for 13 years, and she usually stays six or seven weeks.
She and her entourage of about 10 horses and support staff go to about 24 shows a year, and typically travel all over the Southeast during the winter months before and after the Coast event including Atlanta, Tennessee and Kentucky.
We had been doing shows in Palm Springs, Calif., she said. It was such a long drive for us. Mississippi is a very easy drive.
McCarroll, who is originally from Memphis and is now a Gulfport resident, began looking at the Coast as a potential spot in 1996 and had the first event in 1999.
There were several reasons, she said. There was obviously gaming already here; there seemed to be plenty of hotel rooms; and there is plenty to do. But, No. 1 was the attitude of the director of the fairgrounds (Mike McMillan) and the Harrison County supervisor (Larry Benefield) who made it happen.
McCarroll said new director, Raymond Cuevas, and Supervisor Kim Savant continue to see the vision, and, as a result, weve grown quite a bit probably about two and a half times in size.
The 640-acre Fairgrounds features a 32,500-square-foot covered arena that can seat 1,200. It also has three barns with 280 horst stalls; seven outdoor arenas; six all-weather arenas; one grass arena; two warm-up arenas; seven tent pads for temporary horse stalls; 120 RV sites with water and electricity; restrooms with showers; and a concession area with a kitchen.
With new barns being built, McCarroll projects the event will pay out $184,450 in rental fees to the county.
Rheinheimer rates the venue in Gulfport as better than most any other.
Its absolutely flawless, she said. They are so much more careful about they way they take care of the facility.
And theres plenty to take up extra time, she said.
Most people who come to the shows go out almost every night for dinner and for lunch on the off days. And, a lot of us go shopping and hit the outlet malls. Theres such a good selection there.
Added Rheinheimer: The whole area is so welcoming; they want you to be there. Everybody is thrilled to come and really sad when we have to leave.