For years, this Logan Township site at the mouth of Raccoon Creek was a dumping ground for mud and silt dredged from the Delaware River.

Now, nearly two decades after the dumping stopped, big rigs are again rumbling across a 300-acre section of the sprawling site.

In the shadow of the Commodore Barry Bridge, Gloucester County officials are creating the $20 million DREAM Park, which will feature the state's first public, year-round facility for horseback-riding competitions.

The heated, indoor arena, with capacity for 1,500 spectators, is scheduled to open June 21.

County officials, who will operate the park, hope it will become a premier venue that will attract horse enthusiasts from all along the East Coast. A recent Rutgers University study estimates the equine industry generates about $647 million annually in revenue and tourism dollars, excluding racetracks.

"Gloucester County has a rich agricultural history and a big equine community. We thought, 'Why not an equestrian center?' " said Freeholder Director Stephen M. Sweeney.

The land didn't always look so promising. In the 1970s and '80s, it was a dumping ground for river material, and it was targeted by the Army Corps of Engineers to receive another round of spoil in 1998. That's when the county freeholders stepped in, acquiring the land from 36 owners and designating it for recreation.

"The land was no longer available for dredge spoil because we beat them to the punch," said Chad Bruner, county administrator. The park, he said, is expected to break even, using rental fees to sustain the operation.

The county paid roughly $4 million to buy the land, including some parcels through eminent domain. It spent $16 million more for the construction of the arena, five outdoor riding rings, including a lighted one, pavilions with 240 horse stalls, and a stable with a carpeted floor that can board 46 horses. A state grant contributed $600,000 toward the cost.

Critics, including county Republican Party Executive Director Jeff Morris, question whether the project is worth the cost to taxpayers, especially as it will serve only a small portion of the public. The Democrats have controlled the freeholder board for more than a decade.

At the site, the dredge spoil, which had grown to mounds 20 feet high in some spots, has been flattened, compacted, treated and capped. The equestrian center, built on 75 acres of the property, sits on top of this spoil.

Last week, heavy equipment rattled over the vast expanse as workers moved mounds of reddish dirt to prepare for expected crowds.

The county also plans to rent some of the land for organic farming and to later build a marina. DREAM stands for the Delaware River Equestrian Agriculture Marine Park.

"Riding is part of a whole subculture," said George D. Strachan, the project manager and administrator of the county's improvement authority. "People in North Carolina will spend a weekend in New Jersey for an event."

Though officials want the park to spur economic development and the construction of hotels and restaurants in the sprawling industrial area, horse enthusiasts usually want to camp out in their recreational vehicles, says Barbara Mantini, director of the Gloucester County Paint Horse Club, the largest breed club in the area.

An RV camp is being set up at the park, but she worries that the roughly 50 hookups won't be adequate.

"We need what the Gloucester County 4-H Fairgrounds has - 100 hookups," Mantini said. The fairgrounds, 10 miles away in Mullica Hill, holds large events but is outdoors, open only from March to late October.

Still, she is enthused about the park because of its size and amenities.

"We have a large concentration of horses in the southern portion of New Jersey, and we need this," she said. "I have done many horse shows up and down the East Coast, and this is close enough to the interstate, and off the bridge, that the location is right. I hope the park is done right."

At the entrance to the arena, a cream building that resembles a warehouse, two bronze horses rear up on their hind legs, as if anticipating a mob waiting to enter. Inside, chocolate-hued dirt is spread across the floor, and on a recent day it bore the imprint of tire treads, not hooves.

"We had to bring a consultant in to help us find the right dirt that could be used for the different disciplines. Some want it fluffed and others want it packed down hard," said Strachan, explaining how great pains have been taken to create a proper footing mix that will help make the park a success.

Strachan said the arena also has a sound system, bathroom facilities, and a multi-purpose annex that could be used for livestock auctions.

Other options would be to use the arena for concerts.

Word has gotten out about the new facility. Advertisements appear on

, on a billboard, and in trade magazines.

Over the next several years, a landscaping company will be hired to plant trees and develop trails on the remaining acreage. Because the shoreline is a bald eagle foraging area, the trails won't reach the river, Strachan said.

Sweeney said the county would run a therapeutic riding program for special-needs children.

"Riding horses has helped my daughter with her balance and her posture," said Sweeney, noting that the child has Down syndrome. "The horses are so gentle with these children."

Karyn Malinowski, director of the Equine Science Center at Rutgers University, said the park would fill a void in South Jersey. There are several government-run equestrian parks in North Jersey, including those operated by Mercer, Sussex and Somerset Counties, she said. The Horse Park of New Jersey, one of the largest, is run with state money and is in central Jersey.

Malinowski said the park also would cater to Philadelphia riders. She said it would be "a boon for equestrian enthusiasts" on both sides of the river.

More Information

To learn more about the DREAM Park, call 856-498-8670 or go to

.

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.