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What is planned to be the largest equestrian center on the West Coast, one of the largest and most environmentally friendly development projects ever in Sonoma County and a major boost to the North Bay economy is moving into the second step of a three-step journey to reality.

The non-profit planning to develop the California Equestrian Park & Event Center will hold a capital kick-off campaign event Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Draper Stables Reception Hall, 530 Irwin Lane, between Occidental and Hall roads in Santa Rosa.

"It is mainly to inform people about CEPEC, what is being planned and to get people to participate," explained Wanda Smith, CEPEC board president, executive director and driving force behind the project.

The project itself is panoramic in its scope, offering something for everything equine — arenas, a coliseum, eventing course, polo field, driving course, cattle pins, education center, museum and acres of riding trails.

Development has been broken down into three parts — planning, development and construction.

So far, planners are right on schedule, which called for planning to be completed by the end of this year.

Toughest part of the planning process was finding a location for the development. Needed was 1,000 acres that had to meet a whole list of horse-specific and environmental requirements. Smth's search turned up eight potential sites, and each was extensively examined and eventually evaluated using a mathematical formula that looked at close to 40 criteria. "We didn't chose a site based on subjective opinion. It was totally scientific," said Smith. "We did everything very objectively."

The planners finally decided on about 1,000 acres located off Roblar Road. The site is owned by several different property owners and Smith said CEPEC officials have already started contacting the owners and are optimistic that property can be obtained. Much of the property will be dedicated to open space and to mitigate for tiger salamander habitat that might be impacted.

Another key component of the planning process was a survey, conducted by Smith in person, at group meetings, by phone and online, to determine what horse people might want in an equestrian center.

"The top thing everyone asked for was a place where people could ride safely," Smith said. "They wanted trails where they could ride without fear of hurting themselves or their horses.

"The second thing they wanted was arenas with good ground."

That is not as easy as it sounds, since different equestrian events require different surfaces. Smith said the facility would need a minimum of 10 arenas to accommodate the different equestrian events.

The planning process, including economic and environmental impact studies, nonprofit approval, community outreach and the initiation of land acquisition negotiations has taken more than three years.

This week's event marks the start of the development phase, which includes land acquisition, design, engineering and permitting. The first step is fund raising, and, like planning, it is a huge undertaking. Studies have estimated the cost for the entire project, as envisioned, will be $200 million.

Smith doesn't blink at the number.

She pointed out that many of the country and world's richest and most influential individuals are horse people and many of the biggest cooperations have connections to equine facilities and events. "We are beginning to get international attention," she said. Smith had an opportunity to discuss the CEPEC plans with a group of influential visitors from Switzerland this summer and has been in contact with cooperations and individuals in other countries. In addition, she is contacting local, state and national foundations to help and noted there are a multitude of government grants on all levels available for a facility that will not only serve equestrians, but the entire community in a number of ways, including serving as a mega-disaster center in case of a natural catastrophe.

If all goes as planned, construction will be in three phases beginning next year. Phase 1, in addition to the infrastructure, including power, water and roads, will include arenas, courses, track, polo fields, rails and stalls. Phase 2, to begin in 2016 will include a veterinary hospital, education center and conference center. Phase 3 includes a coliseum and museum. The project is planned to be built out in 2020.

Smith, a Petaluma resident, has been the consistent driving force behind the project. "The skills I have are an ability to bring people into the program and to consolidate the data," she said. "I really love what I do and it makes it fun. My energy comes from the excitement of others I see when I tell them about the project."