When the public complained about how animals were being cared for at the city's educational farm located north of Dallas, the city's park department responded. It got rid of most of the animals. When the public complained about how the horses at Samuell Farm's privately operated trail ride were being treated, the city also responded. It declined to renew a contract for the concessionaire who offered horse rides. Then the horses were removed from the farm, too.
With the horses, animals and most visitors gone, about all that's left of what was once a bustling pioneer-era working farm is a dusty encampment of mostly empty barns, administrative buildings, 11 city employees (almost as many as the remaining animals) and a $561,000 budget. Now, faced with large and unexpected budget cutbacks this year, nobody, even those who worked hard on ambitious plans for the farm just a couple of years ago, seems quite sure what the city should do with the obscure park near Mesquite. Some critics, such as Dallas resident Pat Melton, say it may be time to get rid of the people on Samuell Farm, too.
"Why don't we just close the place and not have to pay the salaries of all those people that are out there?" Melton asks. "They're obviously not making a lot revenue-wise, with visitors, because they don't have anything people necessarily want to see, and there's nothing new going on out there. So why not just close down the damn thing, get rid of all the people and leave it as a park?"
Those involved with farm development say the city has lots of ideas about the future of the farm, but they concede that in light of cutbacks, nothing is likely to happen anytime soon.
"Of the 30 top metroplexes in the entire country, Dallas ranks 30th. We're at the bottom of the 30 as far as how much we spend on parks," says Ralph Isenberg, a city park board member and former head of the Samuell Farm Task Force. The city's budget for next fiscal year proposes a $3 million cutback in park funding, so Samuell Farm is likely to remain sitting on the back burner, Isenberg says.
"Well, what the hell would you expect?" he asks. "We already can't take care of what we have...So tell me what the importance is of Samuell Farm when you've got playgrounds that can't even be properly kept and rec centers that cannot be properly kept and pools that can't be properly kept and parks that are literally falling apart because of lack of funding."
The property that encompasses Samuell Farm is a 640-acre tract between Sunnyvale and Mesquite donated to Dallas by Dr. W.W. Samuell when he died in the 1940s. The doctor stipulated that the property must always be used as a city park. For the first four decades or so, the park was used mostly by campers and birdwatchers.
But, in the early 1980s, the idea of establishing an educational working farm emerged, and it seemed to be feasible for a while, at least until management changed. That's when the mission of the farm seems to have gotten blurry. During the last 10 years or so, the concept of a working farm with real crops, a petting zoo and horse rides on about 340 acres of developed property sort of faded away. The complaints about the mistreatment of animals and their subsequent departure seem to have removed the last vestige of the vision of a pioneer farm.
Now, with fewer than 20 animals (that are kept out of public reach), no one seems to be able to explain why the farm still needs a highly paid director or nearly a dozen workers, including a full-time caretaker who has lived rent free in the Samuell family's old house on the property for years. This fiscal year, taxpayers will pay $405,716 in employee salaries for the farm, according to the parks department. Doug Melton, the farm director who is paid about $64,000 a year, did not return telephone calls seeking comment. Doug Melton's boss, Carolyn Bray did not respond to written questions by the Dallas Observer's deadline.
Pat Melton (no relation to Doug) was one of those who was instrumental in the elimination of animals from the farm after she witnessed what she described as animal abuse. She says she never intended to dramatically alter the farm, but, with the treatment of animals that she saw, she's not sorry most have been removed to sanctuaries. The misuse of taxpayer money is more of a concern than her role in the farm's new face, she says.
"It's parched earth. The buildings are a mess. It's just a weird mishmash of crap. It's like we have no goal in mind. We don't know what we want this thing to be, so we're just kind of screwing around, wasting taxpayers' money," she says.
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As recently as the summer of 1999, the park department was talking seriously about using the property for a recreational vehicle park, a conference center, for special events such as weddings and other similar things. Most of those ideas are probably out of the question for now, Isenberg says.
"All the talks we would have had about the park are, in fact, pie in the sky," he says. "I really think the real issue is the fact that the park department, led by the park board, has elected not to really want to do anything creative with Samuell Farm."
Isenberg says it might be best to put the park into use like it once was, as a campground where city dwellers could get an outdoor experience without driving for hundreds of miles. But the point, he says, is that the park remains an asset that shouldn't be ignored.
"The real story is that Samuell Farm is a huge citywide asset. It's a lot of acreage, and it's a lot of facility, and yet because it still remains in nobody's council district no one will take ownership of it and do anything with it," Isenberg says. "We adopted the master plan that my committee worked on. That was adopted by the board as official policy of the department, and we clearly have lost sight of what we adopted...We haven't done a thing, and again, I'm one of the 15 guilty because I sit on this board."