Horsefeathers

What do you get when you cross a horse with a white elephant? The Las Colinas Equestrian Center.

Ben, the son, now himself a septuagenarian, got his start in real estate in the early '50s. At the time, Irving was a blue-collar town located mostly south of Highway 183. Ben Carpenter and his partner redeveloped the slums north of the highway, stretching Irving toward the family ranches, which were located on black bottom land between Highway 114 and LBJ Freeway, in the flood plain of the Trinity River. In the early '60s, Carpenter began to build houses on a chunk of family-owned land near the University of Dallas. He was just about to sell the bulk of his ranch to Mobil when construction of DFW International Airport was announced. Carpenter ditched the deal with Mobil and, in 1968, began to develop Las Colinas in earnest.

His vision, reclaiming the shifting soil in the Trinity flood plain, was considered folly by some. But Carpenter planned to create a mini-Tennessee Valley Authority of waterways, reservoirs, and pumping stations. In 1972, he convinced the Texas Water Commission to create a municipal utility district, later named the Dallas County Utility and Reclamation District (DCURD), which would issue bonds and levy taxes to build and maintain Las Colinas' infrastructure.

Carpenter intended to run Las Colinas in a high-class manner, and to that end, he built in a number of deed and use restrictions. Everything from architectural styles to land uses had to pass strict architectural and homeowners' committees. Carpenter planned a series of hoity-toity amenities to accompany his high-dollar houses, among them two country clubs, a sports club, and in 1981, the Las Colinas Equestrian Center.

Built in 1981, the Las Colinas Equestrian Center was the pride and joy of Ben Carpenter. Over the years, the property fell into a genteel state of disrepair.
Built in 1981, the Las Colinas Equestrian Center was the pride and joy of Ben Carpenter. Over the years, the property fell into a genteel state of disrepair.
David Brune (foreground), president and chief executive officer of the Dallas County Utility and Reclamation District, and Jacky Knox, DCURDís operations manager (background), are part of the organization that has owned the equestrian center since 1984.

Carpenter's daughter Elizabeth rode hunters and jumpers, and he intended to build nothing less than the premier horse facility in this part of the country. One of Carpenter's architects, who knew little about horses, designed an impressive but unwieldy structure with vaguely Mediterranean architecture and monumental neo-Egyptian columns. Never a practical building, the builder and architect overlooked the simplest things, like convenient places to store hay and compost manure. Architects and trainers say the barn was installed facing exactly the wrong direction to catch crosswinds; instead, four 20-foot fans bolted to the 50-foot ceilings would suck out hot air. DCURD Operations Manager Jacky Knox concedes that throughout the life of the facility, the fans have worked only intermittently.

"It was a facility only an engineer could love," says David Glass, an architect for Prentiss Properties who plays polo at Las Colinas and has stabled horses there. Glass and a partner, Richard Hoag, who runs a small oil and gas exploration firm, were among the losing bidders for the center, which they would like to see remain devoted exclusively to boarding, polo, and horse shows. Glass and Hoag are convinced that these activities can pay for the facility. They also believe that, because of Hersman's management agreement and his control of the center's books and records, Hersman and his investors had an unfair advantage in the May 20 auction.

What is clear is that, from the start, the Las Colinas Equestrian Center has generated controversy -- not to mention a pain in the keister for whoever has tried to run it.

"The equestrian center has always been an exercise in managing conflicts," says David Brune, picking his words carefully.

Now 69, Brune, president and chief executive officer of DCURD, started as a vice president of Southland Financial in 1979, when Las Colinas' landmark bronze mustangs and the office buildings and the ritzy hotels and the canals were all still in the planning stage. Brune was Ben Carpenter's protégé, and he became a director of DCURD in 1981, the year the equestrian center was built. He didn't become intimately familiar with the property, however, until 1984, the year DCURD acquired it. From 1981 until 1984, the Las Colinas Corp., Carpenter's development company, ran the center. The company owned the land at Las Colinas and planned, marketed, and built the development -- from the lakes to the office buildings to the homes and pumping stations, even the mustang sculpture at Williams Square.

"It was always contemplated that at some point the [Las Colinas] Corp. would go out of business," Brune says, explaining how DCURD ended up with the center. "And Mr. Carpenter came under pressure to get rid of the property." Southland Financial, which owned Las Colinas Corp., was losing money, and the equestrian center was a significant point of hemorrhage. At the time Carpenter quietly donated the center to DCURD in 1984, Brune recalls, the facility was losing about $500,000 a year. DCURD records show that Carpenter and Brune didn't want it widely known that the facility had changed hands, perhaps because it was such an unlikely "gift." Yet DCURD took it, perhaps because Carpenter controlled the district's board, which was elected each spring in uncontested races by a handful of voters who resided in the district: chiefly, the Carpenters and their ranch hands.

Carpenter's present to DCURD came with a number of strings attached. The property was to be an equine facility forever. If it ever ceased to be used for horses, ownership would revert to his company.

From 1984 until 1992, DCURD ran the center and attempted unsuccessfully to stop the bleeding. Horse folk remember the period as a golden era. Anyone who could pay boarding ranging from $350-$850 a month could stable an animal. Lawyers, hairdressers, CEOs, socialites, and strippers kept their animals side by side.

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