By SAMANTHA CHARLES Guest columnist In 2008, the Aiken Chamber of Commerce commissioned a survey by the University of South Carolina Aiken School of Business to outline the Economic Profile of Aiken County and the Economic Impact of the Equine Industry. This study revealed that the equine industry's economic impact in Aiken County tops $72 million annually and provides more than 1,800 jobs in Aiken County. What this study shows is that horses go above and beyond simply being for hobby or pleasure riding. The reality is that horses are an industry - and a big one. In 2005, the American Horse Council housed in Washington, D.C., hired Deloitte Consulting, LLP to do an economic impact study that showed that the horse industry in the United States contributes $39 billion in direct economic impact to the U.S. economy and supports 1.4 million jobs on a full-time basis. When indirect and induced spending is included, the industry's economic impact reaches $102 billion. The study also estimates the horse population in this country has reached 9.2 million. Here in Aiken, we have quite a large market share of this valuable industry as horses have been an important part of Aiken's charm for more than 135 years. Within the last six years, this horse friendly community has attracted equestrians from all over the country, from places where horse communities have been repeatedly squeezed out by over development and a lack of understanding of equine as a valuable industry. With the increased interest in the beautiful rural landscape and horse friendly country of Aiken, the economic impact of this historically revered industry has also taken off. With this growth in mind, the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce created an Equine Steering Committee in 2009. Having seen too many towns in the country lose their valuable equine industry to overgrowth and the loss of open space, the Aiken Chamber wants to be proactive in protecting this industry in Aiken. The Chamber commissioned survey shows that the Equine Industry is our third largest industry group in Aiken. What is particularly interesting about this industry is that it is one that brings a huge income without the usual expensive infrastructure. Without attention to long range goals, this industry could be in jeopardy of being squeezed out of Aiken County - just as it has been in so many other areas where all these new horsemen have moved from. The goal of the Chamber's Equine Steering Committee is to preserve, support and grow the equine industry in Aiken County. The Committee has been hard at work in recent months with a focus in four different areas: conservation/open space and integrated trails, governmental affairs, marketing and exploring the possibility of a horse park. Planning ahead for open space and conservation issues is a critical factor for the equine industry. One of the possibilities under discussion includes mapping and defining current open spaces with a goal of developing a countywide trail network for equestrian use. This effort would require a partnership between the City, County, private property owners and organizations, such as the Aiken Land Conservancy. Through our Governmental Affairs Committee, we hope to stay in touch with policy makers to keep them informed of issues important to the equine community. The Chamber's Equine Steering Committee is already partnering with the City of Aiken's Equine Committee to work on common goals. From fox hunting to thoroughbred racing, all the western disciplines, to pleasure riding, Aiken has a great diversity of equine disciplines represented. We have found that it is very important to find effective ways to communicate better across the diverse equine disciplines. In other words, just because you own a horse, doesn't mean you know all of the other folks who own horses. Equally important is the need to increase visibility in the community at large for the valuable asset we have in Aiken through our equine industry. In 2010, we will actively participate in celebrating the heritage and future of the equine industry during Aiken's 175th Anniversary. Over the last year, there have been a number of discussions about the potential of a horse park in Aiken. While there has been recent news about a horse park in the Camden area, we envision a more comprehensive and extensive type of facility in Aiken and are currently gathering information about the possibilities. We believe that a horse park would bring international caliber competition and an exciting schedule of world class events from every horse sport discipline to our area. A horse park would also have a major economic impact on the area as a venue for educational, community and business events, along with retail and hospitality establishments. Aikenites are proud of our history and heritage with horses. However, preserving and growing our equine industry in Aiken will take work on all of our parts. If you are interested in getting involved in the efforts of the Equine Steering Committee, contact the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce at 803-641-1111 or firstname.lastname@example.org. As an active volunteer and member of the Chamber's Board of Directors, I know first-hand that the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce means business. Samantha Charles is chair of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce Equine Steering Committee.