By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
DCURD looked around at what it might have to sell and lit upon the Las Colinas Equestrian Center. In March 1998, DCURD invited sealed bids. They got one bidder -- Hersman, who offered $350,000 for the property as is.
DCURD declined the offer.
Hersman, meanwhile, continued to pursue his Southfork-on-the-Trinity dream. According to several people who heard his pitch to investors last fall, he envisioned putting a small western town on one side of the arena, complete with shootouts, hayrides, and a blacksmith forging iron for visitors.
In the fall of 1998, DCURD and the Las Colinas Land Limited Partnership, which succeeded Carpenter's development company, approached Irving about creating a tax-increment financing district (TIF), a special tax zone that would permit DCURD to finance development with future taxes. Without it, they said, the future of not only DCURD but Irving itself looked bleak. Las Colinas constitutes some 60 percent of Irving's tax base. And, in the parlance of real estate agents, the area was looking at the prospect of "negative absorption" -- that is, losing taxpayer-tenants.
The alarm was audible at Irving City Hall. On December 22, 1998, the Irving City Council passed an ordinance creating a TIF encompassing all 3,390 of DCURD's acres.
DCURD and the Las Colinas Land Limited Partnership presented the newly created TIF board with a plan to spur development in the parts of Ben Carpenter's dream that still lay in Johnson grass and mesquite trees. DCURD would keep all new tax revenues from the next 20 years of development. In exchange, DCURD would transfer to Irving assets that it valued at $134 million.
One of them, valued by DCURD at $1.6 million, was the Las Colinas Equestrian Center.
In December 1998, Irving officials toured the facility. Hersman went all-out. "He was so excited, he had the carpets cleaned and lunch catered," says one person, who asked not to be identified. "He even had floral arrangements brought in." In an effort to make the place look lived-in, Hersman put together a group of riders, and when the VIPs arrived, they saw people happily on horseback.
But in January, city employees and DCURD say, the city looked at the books and saw Hersman's 50-year management contract. They read it over, including the buy-out provision requiring that, in order to terminate the agreement, Hersman would have to be paid four times the last year's gross revenue -- an amount they figured to be in excess of $2 million, or more than the value of the property itself.
The city told DCURD thanks for the "asset," but no thanks.
The TIF board, meanwhile, was holding a series of meetings at which the public insisted they wanted no part of the center or the TIF plan itself. Opponents charged that DCURD's assets -- which included, in addition to the equestrian center, the remnants of the people-mover system, the mustang sculpture at Williams Square, and the canal system -- were arguably not assets at all, but liabilities.
During bitterly contested May city council elections, anti-TIF candidates turned out three pro-TIF incumbents.
The city, DCURD, and the Las Colinas partnerships went back to the drawing board. Earlier this month, the city's TIF board came up with a scaled-back proposal, which would transfer a limited number of assets -- including the bronze mustangs but not the equestrian center and its flesh-and-blood horses -- to the city in exchange for $55 million in future tax revenue from new development.
The Irving City Council is expected to vote on the new TIF proposal early next month.
DCURD, ever anxious to rid itself of the equestrian center, again invited bids. This time, however, the bidders were to specify whether their bids were "as is" -- that is, with restrictions in place -- or whether their bids were with use restrictions removed.
In other words, DCURD was willing to help the purchaser remove Ben Carpenter's restrictions limiting the property to "equestrian uses."
Once again, Hersman was the high bidder. This time, however, he had help: Architect Bill Dixon and developer Buddy Jordan, both well-known and politically wired at Irving City Hall, heard the property was in play and that the deed restrictions might be lifted to permit other uses, such as office buildings or schools. They approached Hersman, who says he thought their ideas about the property were "interesting."
"I don't think Hersman had ever heard of them until they approached him," Brune says. (Dixon and Jordan did not return calls asking how they hooked up with Hersman.)
DCURD's board took no action on the bids at its June 15 meeting. (They have 120 days from May 20 to accept or reject the bids.)
"Frankly, I would like to see DCURD accept the larger amount," Brune says, which would require changing the restrictions that limit the center's uses.
Jacky Knox says altering the various restrictions would require the approval of DCURD, Irving, and the Las Colinas Land Limited Partnership, as well as 60 percent of Las Colinas homeowners.
If all this comes about, Knox and Brune say Hersman and his partners plan to turn the polo field at the corner of O'Connor Road and Royal Lane into two office buildings.
As for the barn, most days it's a ghost town. Polo ponies drift in and out of the east wing, gingerly sidestepping huge potholes and the school barn, where they contend with gigantic rats. "We've got names for 'em," says David Glass, who lost his bid for the facility. "They're real friendly."