Pony Up for a Horse Park
Last week I attended a Dallas City Council briefing in which I heard a top staff member tell council members the city needs to spend $12 million in tax money on a "horse park" because it "fills the public purpose that voters have twice said they want."
I'm a voter. I'm trying to think. Gosh. Did I say I wanted a horse park? Twice? Oh, man. Wait! What is a horse park?
I went back and looked. When they say we have twice said we want a horse park, they mean that money for a horse park was included in city bond proposals passed by city voters in 1998 and in 2006. If you voted in those elections, you never saw the words "horse park" anywhere on the ballot. In fact you had to be sort of a legal scholar of bond proposals to even find mention of a horse park buried deep in supporting documentation.
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But technically we did vote for money for a horse park in 1998 when we approved the Trinity River project. It was going to cost us three million bucks. That was the mortgage amount. With interest the horse park would have wound up costing us $4.2 million, straight out of the property tax.
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In 2006 we voted again for money for a horse park, only this time it was for an additional $12 million. That one would have been $17 million with the interest, plus the $4.2 million from 1998, for a total of about $21.2 million.
Once again, you would have needed your magnifying glass and your funny double-billed Sherlock Holmes cap to find mention of the thing in the documentation for the bond proposal. And again: What is a horse park?
Oh, a very fancy affair, indeed, according to the briefings given to the council that year. It was all about building a big horse arena and attracting rich people from all over the world to come wear black beanies and jump their horses over walls like Ann Romney.
Did we vote for that? Really? Yeah, sorry. We're down for it. If you look at some of the stuff the staff was telling the City Council back in 2006, you can sort of see why the council might have gone for it.
First of all, the rich horsey people were going to kick in $15 million of their own money. That would have made the thing about a $30 million facility hosting 60 fantabulous horsey events a year.
The staff told the council that the Dallas horse park would initially bring in about $22.4 million a year to the Dallas economy, then more later. And, you know the great thing about the city staff, they only tell the council the truth, which is why our honorable council trusts them so.
The city told the council the horse park would bring $305 million to the city's economy in 10 years and create 334 permanent jobs. The great thing was, they were going to have that sucker up and running in only two years, with an opening date of October 2008, so the council could count on all that money rolling into the area pretty fast, as soon as the horsey people showed up in their tuxedo beanies and started jumping.
I grew up in Detroit. I thought to produce wealth you had to manufacture things. What a dope.
Let's see, with a 2008 start-up, the horse park should have been running for about four years by now. So if all that big money started rolling into Dallas at the initial rate of $22.4 million a year, then I guess we've already made about $90 million off it.
But, no. Sadly. Not at all. Now it looks like the correct number is actually ... can you guess? ... ZERO!!! There is no horse park. No beanies. No nothing.
The rich people did not raise $15 million. They said they raised $1 million. I never saw the cash, but anyway that was not at all the deal, was it? If the lady at Ace Hardware says your box of deck screws costs $15, you can't hand her $1, can you? You certainly can't give an IOU for one dollar. So nothing got done. Nothing. No horse park. No Ann Romney. No beanies.
Now the city staff is telling the City Council that it still has $12 million in its hot little fist. It's unclear where the other three million went. I'm afraid if we ask, we'll look like poor people. Forget it. It's just tax money.
The staff still has a legal authorization from us to borrow and spend $12 million, and that money is burning a hole in their little pockets, so they are proposing that the city do the following: Just give it away.
Give away $12 million in capital improvements to a group of nonprofits. Give them 30-year leases on several hundred acres of city land. The nonprofits will invest nothing. They will pay nothing. They will raise no revenue for the city. They will have no economic impact. But they will help children in need. And let me ask you something: Are you against children in need? I thought not.
No more talk of rich horsey people. Not a mention of $22.4 million in annual economic impact. Just build something, give it to these nice people, that's it. Spend the money and walk.
And I need to be careful about this part. I heard spokespersons for the nonprofits speak at last week's council briefing; I chatted with some of them by phone later; and I kind of checked them out. I think these really are good people who do good works. They take disabled kids and kids sent to them by the courts and try to give them a stronger, brighter view of life using horses and trail riding as therapy. I don't believe there's a bad word to be said about any of them.
But, look: They came to this briefing without any financials. No pro forma. They have some history, and they operate existing facilities in the suburbs, but they didn't even bring documentation to show how many clients they serve. Their best estimate was "thousands." When some of the council members drilled down, the "thousands" seemed to refer to people who attended a recent pumpkin sale.
Again, these are very nice people with the best of intentions. But we are talking about turning over hundreds of acres of valuable forest land to them, not to mention a $12 million capital investment, locked in with 30-year leases. This is just not the kind of deal that ever happens in the real world.
The beanie people are gone. Mayor Mike Rawlings said in the meeting he had gone to "a lot of wealthy people" about their interest in the park, but he couldn't name any who were remotely interested in kicking in money any time soon. Rawlings said, "The big question I was asked was, 'Are you guys going to get serious about it?'"
You want a horse park? Build it. Don't bother us. That's what that means.
These are just rich people who don't want to pay for a horse park, unlike you and me, Big Spender. We've said we want it twice. I frankly do not recall. Maybe I wanted two horse parks. I'm trying to remember what else was going on in my life at that time.
I know that you know that these things do not happen in a vacuum. Two-thirds of the city's municipal swimming pools are closed because of budget constraints. The overall parks budget has fallen by 50 percent in the last five years.
Last week a concerned member of the Park Board, Lee M. Kleinman, did something people in positions of power and persuasion rarely do in Dallas: Acting on what was clearly an impulse of conscience, he risked ostracism by sending a letter to the City Council begging them not to do this.
"Please deny the City's attempt to proceed with the development of the Texas Horse Park on this week's agenda," he wrote. "This facility has little or no support in our community as demonstrated by an inability to raise private matching funds. In an era where many quality of life projects have exceeded their matching fund commitment, virtually no money has been raised for this project."
Kleinman pointed out, "This project serves a very small section of our community. The briefing targets 150 children at a cost of over $80,000 per user." He said the same money could be used to build two to three aquatic centers where thousands of kids could be taught to swim.
I spoke to Dallas naturalist Tim Dalbey last week, who said the site designated for the horse park is an invaluable archeological resource that will be ruined by the park.
What does this remind me of? It reminds me of Winfrey Point, where city staff wanted to sacrifice an expanse of beautiful lakeside prairie in order to collect parking fees. It reminds me of pressure the city staff put on a rowing club at White Rock Lake recently to turn its boathouse into a nightclub so the city could collect rent.
But mostly it reminds me of the "white-water feature," a fake kayaking rapids in the Trinity River designed by city staff that has permanently ruined the most valuable stretch of the river for paddling recreation.
Especially where parks are concerned, the city staff has consistently proved itself in recent years to be the source of horrible ideas, snafus and costly catastrophes. This is another one. Call your councilperson. Try sobbing.
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