Property offers Olympic sized outdoor arena, indoor arena, trails
By Beth Altena
“This is the result of public/private efforts,” said Kent County Sheriff Lawrence Stelma during the grand opening of the Kent County Sheriff Department’s Mounted Division indoor arena last Wednesday, October 16. The event happened two years after Kent County donated 30 acres of land and a 100-year-old barn to the Sheriff Department to house the mounted division at 4687 Kroes in Rockford.
Stelma said the new facility could not have happened without countless volunteer hours and effort and offers a permanent home to the horses of the mounted division. In addition, there will be a wide variety of opportunities for the public to interact with officers and horses and use the facilities for any number of equestrian events and competitions. The 35,000-square-foot arena went up this summer and will offer indoor riding, space for ten horses, classrooms, offices and equipment storage.
The need for a mounted division became apparent after the 2000 opening of Millenium Park, which Stelma characterized as a “very large park.” As a search and rescue tool, the mounted division is priceless for covering terrain of all types. Officers on horses are also ideal for crowd control because of the height and visibility of the riders. Stelma said it is estimated that one mounted officer is as effective as ten officers on foot in crowds.
The mounted division is an extension of the Traffic Squad, which is Kent County’s oldest civilian law enforcement support organization—serving Kent County since 1917. Mounted officers serve in a volunteer capacity and are responsible for their own gear and equipment. Stelma said the division currently has eight horses, but there is a need for ten or twelve. He praised Kent County’s Director of Parks, Roger Sabine, for recommending this property. He praised Kent County for having the vision to see what a good fit the property would be for the use and offering it.
The first phase for the project took place in 2011 with a renovation of the barn and fencing an outdoor arena and pastures. Phase II was the stalls, facility and riding arena. Visitors were told there are outside trails prepared as well. Stelma also thanked key personnel on the project, Don DeGroot who spent so many hours cutting and nailing the boards of the facility and stalls that his fellow officers threatened to buy him a hammock so he could sleep over. His efforts go back to day one.
“I told him we wanted a mounted division and he asked what the budget was,” stated Stelma. “I told him there wasn’t one.”
DeGroot said the research into what a mounted division would look like goes back two years before the “real” work began. He said most are reservists who keep their animals themselves. “We decided that wasn’t the way we wanted to go,” DeGroot said. He said it is much more efficient, especially for search and rescue, for the horses to be at one location. He described that all officers and all horses are cross trained, so if one horse is under the weather, another will do just as well.
The department was able to purchase their first horse in 2007 and build up a stable that was kept at the Kent County Honor Camp. In 2011, budget issues closed the camp and the horses were stabled individually as space was available. DeGroot said mounted search and rescue is so effective the organization receives many requests for help all across the state of Michigan.
He said since the beginning, the organization of the project, and the fundraising, became such a challenge the department assigned the duties to Chad Wieber, who donated his hours free of charge on top of his full-time job with the Sheriff Department. “Chad has done a wonderful job getting us to this point.”
Stelma spoke about the importance of generous donors to the project and introduced a family member of the late Peter Cook to speak. Donations toward the arena allowed it to be the Peter Cook Arena, and Ryan Cook said, “Our community works best when we work together. The traffic squad is a good example of that.” He said the work of the volunteers offered the best bang for the buck. “It’s hard to say no to that.” He said he knew the mounted division does unparalled work in search and rescue, as well as many other duties, such as presidential security.
Stelma introduced world-renowned philanthropist Peter Secchia, who was on hand for the event. Secchia talked of his determination to see the mounted division become a reality. He recalled friends the late Fred Meijer and Peter Cook, who also strongly believed in the idea. “They were two wonderful, wonderful people. This was something they wanted and I wanted. I am sure they are looking down on this now. They wanted it to happen.”
Kent County Administer Daryll Delabbio and Cook were both presented with Kent County Mounted Division gold shields, but were warned the position was honorary and had no law enforcement powers included.
The arena and grounds will be available for the public to use for horse-related events, from shows to 4-H events and for the Rockford Public School Equestrian Team. Dr. Shibler, Superintendent of RPS, said the team competes across the state. He called the whole complex “outstanding,” and said he was most impressed that it was accomplished without taxpayer money, but by fundraising, donations and volunteer work.