The Cruel and Unusual Building of the Texas Horse Park
Kevin Woods wanted to work with the Texas Horse Park. He ended up getting stampeded by it.
Hunched over a table at a Jack in the Box, Kevin Woods doesn't look much like a cowboy. No hat, no belt buckle, no boots, not a horse in sight. Here, tucked between a cluster of warehouses and a bustling urban highway, is about as far from the open range as a Texan can be. With his plain red T-shirt lightly dusted with sheetrock, and his calloused hands entwined in front of him, he looks like the home-repair contractor that he is. But it's a cowboy's blood that runs through Woods. This is a man who's broken wild mustangs and wrestled half-ton steers to submission in soft dirt, who can rope a calf and shoe a horse, who's as comfortable in the saddle as behind the wheel of a truck.
Woods was born into farm life in Stamps, Arkansas, a hollowed-out agricultural town a few miles north of the Louisiana border. He left as fast as he could, fleeing for Toledo, Ohio at 14. He took with him his fondness for horses and livestock, but his passion lay fallow for several years as he clawed for survival. He slept on the streets and rummaged through garbage cans for scraps before he fell in with a gang, started dealing drugs and pulled himself out of homelessness.
"I was one of the drug dealers you didn't want to meet on the streets," he says. "I'm the one Momma warned you about. You know, like I said, I was taught in the school of hard knocks."
The law caught up with him in Iowa, where he was convicted of felony assault. He maintains the men he attacked were trying to rob him, but he was sentenced to just under three years in prison.
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Prison was transformational for Woods, not so much because of the monotony of life behind bars as what it caused him to miss. He'd fathered a daughter when he was 18. With Woods in his mid-20s, she was entering elementary school. Woods and her mother had divorced, but he'd married again. "I can't be that father to protect my child if I'm out here doing wrong things," he says, recounting his awakening. "I can't provide for my family if I'm dead or I'm locked up."
Upon his release in 1999, he moved back to Ohio with his second wife and stepdaughter and started a concrete company. It provided a decent living for several years until he relocated to Arkansas, where the construction market was soft. In 2007, his business going belly up, Woods found work in Texas welding overhead cranes and moved the family to Euless.
He brought several horses, stabling them on a plot of land in Pleasant Grove, where the disintegrating nub of Elam Road is swallowed by the Great Trinity Forest. He subleased his spot from the Wild Bunch, one of the black trail-riding clubs that form the core of southern Dallas' blue-collar horse culture. He was fastidious about his horses, keeping them in a stable he rigged up from discarded pallets.
The welding job disappeared soon enough, but that didn't matter. Pleasant Grove is teeming with horses, most of them kept on small lots by people like Woods: transplants from East Texas or Louisiana or Arkansas who have clung to a token of their rural heritage. These aren't high-dollar animals, but there were enough, between the Wild Bunch and other neighbors who heard about his skill as a farrier and horse trainer, that Woods could eke out a living.
Soon kids from the neighborhood were showing up, first his stepdaughter's classmates and then others as word spread. They were kids whose futures were being torpedoed by poverty and broken families and low expectations, who could spiral into drugs or violence at any moment. Most had never encountered a horse up close or ventured more than a few feet into the vast swath of forest they lived next to.
"When I see them kids over in the Pleasant Grove area, I seen a lot of me," he says. "My thing was show them there was a better way than the way they was going."
Horses were his tool. The kids were clumsy with them at first, but Woods showed them how to gain a horse's trust, then eased them into the saddle and led them through basic riding lessons. As the kids grew more comfortable, he taught them the basics of care, feeding and brushing and saddling. He had no plans grander than this until about 2010, when he was approached by Texas Horse Park Inc., a nonprofit that had contracted with Dallas City Hall to run a lavish, city-funded equestrian facility planned for across Elam Road.
"A guy from the Texas Horse Park come down, ask me do I know anything about the property back there," Woods remembers. "I said, 'Yeah I know pretty much about it.' I done a lot of riding back there with my horses and stuff, and they asked me, 'Would you like to show us around?' I said, 'Sure, I'll show you around.' And so as time went on, probably about a couple of months later, they told me Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was coming, and they would like to know if I would lead and do a trail ride for them, me knowing the property back there pretty much, so I did that. Balls started rolling from there."
At the time, it seemed to Woods that those balls were rolling in his direction. If he'd ever had occasion to pause and reflect on his life goals, there would have been three: to provide for his family, to make a living working with horses and to help the troubled kids in Pleasant Grove -- the "mini-mes," as he calls them. He was doing all that, and he was poised to help even more kids as word of his mentorship program spread and he formalized it into a nonprofit.
But what Woods didn't yet understand was that the grand vision for the Texas Horse Park left no room for a homespun horse operation or anything else that had sprung from the native soil. The vision sought to remake the area out of whole-cloth, seizing land, running off occupants and entrusting the multimillion dollar project to an accused horse abuser from Plano.
That realization, the one he's reliving now inside this freeway-side Jack in the Box, came later.
"The thing was to get us out the picture," he says. "Once they got us out the picture, they would have their way."
An early, and elaborate, vision for the Horse Park.
In 1995, not long before Woods was being shipped off to prison in Iowa, the Trinity River Corridor Citizens Committee, an unwieldy group of several hundred Dallas residents and politicians, presented its final report. Two years in the making, the document described in broad strokes a vision for overhauling the city's oft-disparaged waterway. It included early renderings of a meandering parkway running along the river near downtown; plans for overhauling the city's flood-control system; a rough blueprint for parks, trails and amenities that would transform the Great Trinity Forest from a habitually ignored backwater into a recreational paradise. It was embraced by Mayor Ron Kirk as a mandate and became the seed for the Trinity River Corridor Project, the largest public works program in Dallas history.
Nowhere did the report mention a horse park. It briefly mentioned horse stables and floated the idea of turning the typically vacant stalls at Fair Park into a year-round "equestrian club." But an "equestrian center" didn't show up until two years later, in the 1998 bond program that the committee's report spawned, and even the most civic-minded voters could be forgiven for missing it, buried as it was beneath a quarter-billion dollars of controversial toll road, less-controversial flood protections and fancy urban lakes. Either way, voters' approval of the bond package planted the seed for the Texas Horse Park.
That seed sprouted in August 2002, when the City Council voted to pay a firm called BRW Architects $500,000 to develop a plan for an equestrian center and what would become the Trinity River Audubon Center. In BRW's initial vision, the equestrian center would be a no-frills boarding facility in Pleasant Grove: a single barn with a few dozen stalls, a couple of small warm-up and exercise arenas and a generous supply of pastureland. Total cost: $3.3 million.
The problem, says architect Craig Reynolds, the "R" in BRW, was that the firm "very quickly determined it needed to grow into quite a bit larger facility to break even." They considered bumping it to $11.4 million, but apparently that wouldn't do either. BRW submitted a feasibility study to City Council in 2004 predicting that a facility of this modesty would lose $36,560 per year.
Reynolds began reaching out to his contacts in the local horse community. Diane Pitts, his Lakewood neighbor and current president of the U.S. Eventing Association, was one of the first people he approached. She doesn't remember exactly when she first spoke to him about the horse park, but soon after she and a brain trust of local horse enthusiasts were meeting in Reynolds' office, debating how to improve Dallas' horse park.
They all agreed it was a shame that Texas, home to more horses than any other state, lacked a championship-caliber facility to host events across all equestrian disciplines. There are horse facilities, of course: Fort Worth can accommodate reining and cutting competitions; the Tyler Rose Horse Park is good for hunter/jumper shows and dressage; Weatherford can do eventing. But nothing like the Kentucky Horse Park, which can host them all. They agreed that Dallas should abandon plans for a small-fry boarding facility and build something "world-class." It seemed like a win-win-win, Pitts recalls. Local equestrians would get a high-caliber competition facility in their backyard, the city of Dallas would reap millions in tax revenue from out-of-town competitors and spectators, and a long-ignored part of Dallas would get an injection of economic development.
"If you're going to go into an effort like that and have it be beneficial for that part of town and beneficial to the city of Dallas," Pitts says, "[you want] to build a facility that could attract shows."
They established themselves as a nonprofit, Texas Horse Park Inc., and set to work selling City Hall on their vision. Former City Councilman Craig Holcomb, one of the primary architects of the Trinity project and a backer of the horse park, recalls city staff and council members being immediately receptive. He had no trouble convincing them to ask for more funding -- $14 million this time -- in the 2006 bond program.
And so, what had begun as a nice horse barn and some riding areas had mushroomed into a $100 million equestrian theme park, complete with stalls for several hundred horses, a 100-acre cross-country course, a half-mile racetrack and a sea of parking and RV hookups, to accommodate the trailers and campers that would descend weekly on Pleasant Grove. No longer was the goal to provide something the surrounding community would find useful, something to complement the neighborhood. This was something that would transform it.
The city and Texas Horse Park Inc. agreed to split the $30 million cost of the first phase. The city's contribution would come from the 2006 bond package, the nonprofit's through private donations. Meanwhile, BRW Architects cashed in: Spread over almost a dozen contract amendments approved by the city over a decade, the firm's contract grew to similarly unrecognizable proportions, ballooning from the initial $500,000 in 2002 to $4.4 million in 2012.
And no matter how the project ballooned, it was politically bulletproof, thanks to that 2006 bond vote. From that point forward, opposition to the horse park, much like the controversial toll road, could -- and in City Council meetings routinely was -- cast as opposition to the will of the people. And because it carried the promise of hundreds of millions of dollars of economic development for Pleasant Grove, opponents could be -- and in City Council meetings routinely were -- accused of being against southern Dallas.
The project gained enough momentum to barrel through multiple roadblocks, chiefly Texas Horse Park Inc.'s failure to raise the money: After five years, it had banked less than $750,000 of its promised $15 million share. The project's supporters maintain that they would have raised the money were it not for the Great Recession. They also claim the local philanthropic community was tapped out after pouring so much money into the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Klyde Warren Park and projects in the Arts District. But to critics like City Councilman Lee Kleinman, who has proposed killing the horse park and using the money to overhaul the city's aquatic centers, the reason was more fundamental: "It signaled to me there wasn't broad community support for the horse park."
Half its funding gone, City Hall could have simply spiked the project. Instead it set aside plans for a sprawling, money-making complex and reworked the horse park as a charity initiative. Planners had always intended to include charity -- therapeutic riding for disabled children and horseback rides for the neighborhood -- as a minor part of the facility. Now this was the entire project, which the city would fund by itself using the $15 million it had set aside. There would be a horse park, but it wouldn't be the utilitarian stables envisioned in 1998, and it wouldn't be the grand equestrian mecca planned after 2006. This would be something in between, neither modest nor world-class.
Another hurdle arose when the city's bid process failed to unearth anyone who wanted to run the horse park. Officials cleared this by abandoning that process and simply signing deals with two local nonprofits: Equest, a well-respected Wylie charity that had been in conversations with the city for a decade, and River Ranch Educational Charities, an obscure nonprofit from McKinney.
Equest would control a small, autonomous section on the facility's southern edge. River Ranch would actually run and maintain the horse park. The deals they signed with the city were generous: 20-plus years of exclusive rights to the property without having to pay a dime in rent. It wasn't until later, well after it was locked into a decades-long partnership with River Ranch, that City Hall would learn more about the troubling past of the nonprofit's founder. The question, then, was what they would do about it.
Animal cruelty investigators found neglected horses on Wayne Kirk's ranch. Dallas gave Kirk the keys to the project.
City of McKinney
On a brisk Monday morning in November 2011, De St. Aubin eased his car down a long gravel drive to Storybook Ranch. To his right was a swath of pasture that had somehow survived Collin County's population boom intact. Ahead was the faux-Western village where suburbanites could pay for a dose of historical nostalgia and pose for wedding pictures.
A 10-year veteran of McKinney's animal control department, St. Aubin was following up on a tip forwarded to him by the local SPCA. Several of Storybook's horses were in miserable shape, the complaint said. A few minutes walking the property was enough to convince St. Aubin the claim was legitimate.
About a dozen of the horses were visibly malnourished, their ribs and hip-bones jutting through their mangy coats. He snapped pictures -- a chestnut mare nibbling forlornly at a field that's been gnawed to bare dirt, an anemic, fleabitten gray looking toward the camera, glassy-eyed -- while an employee explained matter-of-factly that the horses weren't being given enough food. St. Aubin looked around. There wasn't a needle of hay in sight. St. Aubin's visit was interrupted by a pickup pulling to a stop nearby. Out of it stepped Storybook owner Wayne Kirk.
Kirk, a short but sturdy 60-year-old with a dealmaker's energy and a cowboy's swagger, had been away from the property when St. Aubin arrived. Storybook and its attached nonprofit, River Ranch Educational Charities, are just a piece of Kirk's business portfolio. He also owns all or part of a deer-breeding operation near Corsicana, a hunting ranch in West Texas, multiple cattle ranches, and a couple of wind-energy ventures, among other things. If he can be said to have a day job, it's selling oil-and-gas securities.
Kirk was apologetic as he led St. Aubin through the property. Yes, those were his horses. No, they didn't have any hay. Yes, he would make sure they got some. St. Aubin pointed out a particularly haggard dun-and-white male paint whose penis was badly swollen and distended, a condition a veterinarian would later tell St. Aubin was likely caused by malnutrition. He told Kirk it needed immediate veterinary care. Kirk replied that he'd have it looked at right away, and St. Aubin left with Kirk's assurance that everything would be taken care of.
When he arrived at Storybook the next morning, the skinniest horses had disappeared. Kirk explained over the phone that they'd been shipped off to his West Texas ranch so they could fatten up. St. Aubin wasn't entirely satisfied, but with the animals hundreds of miles away and hay spread out for the remaining horses, he left town for the long Thanksgiving weekend.
Then, that Saturday, he received a call from a Storybook employee. Not all the horses had been moved to West Texas, the caller said. The male paint, the one Kirk swore would be seen by his vet immediately, had instead been confined to a cramped stall at Storybook. It still had no hay, and it still hadn't received medical care.
Returning to Storybook on Monday, St. Aubin saw at once that the horse's condition had worsened significantly. Alarmed, he gave the case to the city prosecutor. The next day, a municipal court judge signed a warrant ordering the horse's seizure. The day after, McKinney police opened a criminal investigation that would ultimately lead to an animal-cruelty charge against Kirk.
Reached on his cell phone in late July, Kirk reiterated what he told the Observer when we unearthed the animal-cruelty allegations last fall: Any claim that he had mistreated his horses was a lie cooked up by a disgruntled former employee. He has not responded to requests for a full interview.
But it wasn't just a former employee who was convinced Kirk wasn't feeding his horses. St. Aubin, a seasoned animal-control officer, believed it. So did McKinney police corporal Joel Purser, who recommended that Kirk be prosecuted for animal cruelty, and the Collin County District Attorney's office, which filed charges before ultimately dropping them for lack of conclusive evidence. So did King County Sheriff Cotton Elliott, who, according to a report, found 43 Kirk-owned elk starving on the same ranch, several of whom died after getting stuck in the mud just shy of an empty water trough. So did McKinney municipal court judge Roger Dickey, who, after examining testimony and evidence from both sides, determined that the seized paint horse had been "cruelly treated" and should be permanently removed from Kirk's care.
Kirk told the City Council in 2012 that he grew up in the Mountain Creek area of Dallas, where his mother ran a small horse-training business. He'd always had a knack for the animals and, as a single father watching his young daughter's face brighten whenever she mounted a horse, he was inspired to share his passion through a business offering summer camps and trail rides and, later, the nonprofit. But whatever passion he has for the animals at his ranches or the special-needs children served by his nonprofit, former employees say it's overshadowed by haphazard business practices and his tightfisted control of his organization's finances.
Jennifer Gerber worked for Kirk in the mid-2000s at the Frisco Horse Park, where Kirk's operation was based before he bought Storybook. No one at the facility had any formal job description, she recalls, which meant that duties, including buying feed for the horses, were divvied up based on who was willing to take them on.
Buying horse feed should have been a routine task, but Gerber recalls that it was made maddeningly difficult by Kirk's refusal to delegate. The only way one of his employees could get money for feed was to track Kirk down at his home in Plano or at his office at Reef Oil & Gas in Richardson and have him personally cut a check. If he was out of town or couldn't be reached, as was often the case, there'd be no feed.
The animals, then, were frequently left to the mercy of the employees and volunteers. These were people, by and large, who had been drawn to the Frisco Horse Park and Storybook Ranch through their love of animals. They weren't going to let the horses go hungry, so they'd pay for food out of their own pockets. In interviews with former employees, this comes up as a universal theme. A camp counselor who worked a summer at the Frisco Horse Park a dozen years ago said Kirk often relied on employees to buy food for the horses. So did Bill Carter, a retired USDA veterinarian who volunteered at Storybook eight years later, and a half dozen other former ranch hands and office staff who worked for Kirk in between. It was built into his system, they say.
While she was working there, Gerber was always relatively confident that there were enough concerned people around to make sure the horses didn't starve. What troubled her most -- "what still haunts me to this day" -- was the same thing that would gnaw at Carter six years later: the goats.
The goats, Gerber recalls, were filthy and unkempt, teeming with fleas and parasites. Worse, though, was the condition of their legs, which had become gnarled and deformed because neither Kirk nor anyone on his staff had ever bothered to trim their hooves, which would come just after food and water in Goat Care 101.
Kirk, the ex-employees say, would never refuse to fix the problems outright. He'd simply drag his feet, promising to get an item taken care of the next day and, when nothing happened, the day after that, then the day after that, and so on until he'd simply avoid whomever was pressing him on an issue. And these traits weren't limited to animal care, former employees say. Nick Renfro was a 16-year-old high school student in the late 1990s when he was hired on for the Halloween season at Kirk's Majestic Ranch at LBJ Freeway and Marsh Lane, since replaced by a Wal-mart. The boy's job was simple: As one of the ghouls on the ranch's annual haunted hayride, he would leap from the darkness, bang on the wagon as it passed, then retreat back into the shadows as the passengers shrieked.
The problem, Renfro says, is that Kirk's equipment was in such terrible repair that once, as his palm slapped the wood, a large piece splintered off and embedded itself in his wrist. Kirk promised Jan Renfro, Nick's mother, that he'd cover medical expenses, which ballooned after a shoddy splinter-removal resulted in blood poisoning. For a single mother struggling to pay bills, this was welcome news. She gladly accepted the check Kirk wrote her, which was for the full amount of the medical bills. But when she tried to cash it, the check bounced. Figuring it must have been a mistake, she tried calling several times but he wouldn't return her calls.
Kirk represented himself in the ensuing lawsuit. His defense, according to court records, consisted entirely of a one-page denial, handwritten on notebook paper, telling the judge to throw out the lawsuit because the Renfros were liars who were only after his money. The Renfros won the case after Kirk failed to appear at subsequent hearings.
Gerber sued Kirk, too, after quitting the Frisco Horse Park, claiming he owed her a debt of several thousand dollars. This time his legal strategy was even simpler. A Collin County deputy constable tried five times to serve him with notice of the suit at his West Plano McMansion, which doubles as an office. The first four times, the deputy was told that Kirk wasn't home. Describing his fifth and final try, he wrote, "No answer. I observed white male standing in kitchen. Would not answer the front door."
The allegations that have been leveled at Kirk and his businesses over the years could fill a book. Most of them, save for decades-old marijuana and DWI convictions, have been settled or dismissed without any finding of wrongdoing on Kirk's part, but Kirk has been sued multiple times over unpaid debts and been the target of federal tax liens. The city of Frisco once took him to court because he allegedly refused to correct code violations at his horse park there. He has been accused on multiple occasions, both in lawsuits and in complaints to securities regulators, of lying to potential investors.
And a simple check of Kirk's rental history reveals that two pieces of ranchland he leased for his horse operation prior to buying Storybook in McKinney ended in bitter disputes with the landlord. In the first case, on the LBJ/Marsh property, he was charged with felony criminal mischief for allegedly cutting his landlord's fence in 1997. Kirk maintained that he'd been framed by the property owner as an excuse to evict him. The charges were ultimately dropped.
In the second, Collin County land magnate H. Roger Lawler booted Kirk and River Ranch off the Frisco Horse Park property, alleging that Kirk owed $200,000 in unpaid rent and had left pastures severely overgrazed and strewn with piles of building materials, trash and broken-down cars and equipment. Kirk denied the allegations, and their legal battle was settled out of court.
When the Observer first contacted City Hall about Kirk's animal-cruelty investigation in the fall of 2013, almost a full year after River Ranch had signed its contract, officials were caught off guard. In a memo to the City Council, Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan alerted them to coming publicity and promised a full investigation. After several months, she declared that the allegations against Kirk appeared to be baseless.
City Councilman Scott Griggs promptly urged his colleagues to cancel the city's contract with River Ranch. "City staff are too cozy with Wayne Kirk and his group and completely failed to do due diligence," Griggs says. It stands as the "most shameful example of due diligence in the city." He raised his concerns during a City Council meeting last May, the only time the council has publicly discussed Kirk's background. Pressing Jordan for an explanation, she repeated Kirk's claim that the animal-cruelty charges were a fabrication of a single disgruntled employee and said any tax issues were because his previous accountant had died.
"When you have employees, things happen," Jordan said. "No organization is 100 percent clean."
Griggs' colleagues were similarly unimpressed. Council members Carolyn Davis, Vonciel Jones Hill and Tennell Atkins -- who represent the districts that include and border the horse park -- angrily defended Kirk and denounced anyone who would dare criticize the horse park.
"We gotta start talking positive about things that are coming to Pleasant Grove," Atkins said. "Horse park bring money. Horse park bring economic activity. ... Please do not rain on our horse park parade."
Neighborhood kids Cowboy Up for the Cinco de Mayo parade.
Courtesy of Kevin Woods
Though the appearance of the Texas Horse Park's backers would soon prove disastrous for cowboy Kevin Woods, in the days and weeks after they first arrived, it yielded one undeniably positive outcome: his friendship with Mary Rhoades.
Rhoades, the granddaughter of the founder of TXI and a prolific volunteer, was on the board of the nonprofit Texas Horse Park Inc. She'd come to look at the property with her fellow directors, an overlapping mix of North Dallas society types and competitive equestrians. But while Rhoades was from North Dallas and owned horses, Woods quickly gleaned she was different. She didn't seem the least bit uneasy about being in Pleasant Grove, and she wasn't interested in envisioning the grand equestrian center that would some day rise from the underbrush to beautify benighted Pleasant Grove. She worked on getting to know the park's future neighbors.
She and Woods fell into easy conversation, and they soon struck up a friendship. They were an unlikely pair, the poor black ex-con who'd scrapped his way out of an Arkansas backwater and the rich white lady born into Dallas' civic elite, riding side-by-side through Pleasant Grove on horseback. But there was a connection there that was deeper than horses.
As Rhoades returned to the land on Elam Road, she saw the neighborhood kids wander onto Woods' property, and she watched how he guided them through the basics of riding and horse care. How he showed them how to welcome a new foal by running their hands all over the animal's coat to accustom them to human touch. By having them gently lift each leg, one at a time, so they'll be still when they're being shod. By crinkling paper next to their ears so they won't bolt. He was patient, but he was also firm. The kids who showed up late for a riding session were sent home with instructions to be on time for the next one. She asked Woods whether he was organized as a nonprofit.
"Nah," he remembers telling her. "I'm not a nonprofit, everything I'm doing is coming from me."
"Do you realize what you're doing?" she asked.
"What do you mean do I realize what I'm doing?"
"Do you realize you're helping these kids?"
"It beats having them on the streets."
With Rhoades' help, Woods registered with the IRS as a 501c(3) charity. For a name, they chose Let's Cowboy Up. The next several months were wonderful. Woods took the land over from the Wild Bunch and began actively reaching out to the community. He organized clean-up days to pick up trash and spruce up the area. His fundraising rodeos and barbecues were open to all comers. Let's Cowboy Up marched with the Hispanic cowboys in the Cinco de Mayo parade and with black riders on MLK Day.
The organization was gaining steam. Donations were coming in from local feed-and-seed and farm-supply stores. Paul Quinn College, the Historically Black College in South Dallas that had just plowed its football field in favor of an urban farm, lent volunteers and support. Woods, though, wasn't content with just showing kids how to ride a horse. He wanted to teach them how to navigate life. He sketched out a hierarchy of horsemanship levels through which kids could ascend as they gained skills, the way karate students cycle through belts. Those who made it to the top might be able to parlay their experience into a job. Emmit Hernandez, one of Woods' more advanced apprentices, is now making a living shoeing horses in Pleasant Grove.
His ambitions grew. He sketched out blueprints for the farm, each section of which would teach students a marketable skill. He designed the buildings and decided where they would go and what materials they'd be built with. He and Rhoades were also pretty sure they could raise funds for a barbecue joint staffed and essentially run by the kids in Let's Cowboy Up.
More immediately, Woods went and became certified to teach archery and fishing. He began looking for a local auto shop that would come out and teach the kids to change a car's oil -- a simple skill, but one that could earn them some honest pocket money and build self-confidence. Woods was pouring his soul into Let's Cowboy Up. The kids were thriving, and more were coming each week. He felt like he was starting to make a difference.
Then the code inspectors showed up.
In four years he'd been on the property, Woods had never seen a code-enforcement officer. Now, less than a year after the Texas Horse Park Inc. board members appeared, the city wouldn't leave him or his landlord alone. They had various gripes. A handful of wooden buildings had stood at the rear of the property since the 1970s or so, built without permits in the floodplain. Strings of lights were hung from trees, in violation of some city ordinance or another. The electrical outlets in the pavilion -- also not permitted, just like the open rodeo pen a few yards away -- were of the wrong type. The sign he'd had hung at the entrance to advertise a Juneteenth fundraiser was illegal. And the organization lacked a certificate of occupancy, which would be impossible to obtain while there were outstanding code violations.
Woods did his best to comply. He removed the lights from the trees and changed the electrical outlets in the pavilion. He demolished the old buildings by hand and hauled away the debris. He took down the Juneteenth sign and, once it became clear the point was non-negotiable, stopped hanging new ones, even though it meant his fundraising took a hit.
Taking down the pavilion, anchored by four sturdy brick pillars and a concrete floor, would be trickier. But Woods would have done it had his landlord, a standoffish octogenarian named Tony Burrescia, consented. By then, though, the ardor with which the city was pursuing code violations on the property led Woods, Burrescia and neighbors along Pemberton Road to conclude it was a coordinated effort to run Let's Cowboy Up off the land.
Burrescia obliged and told Woods he had to go. Visited recently at his East Dallas home, Burrescia declined to be interviewed but confirmed that he had no problem with Woods or Let's Cowboy Up. It was the city that forced his hand.
Shortly after Let's Cowboy Up was evicted, the city sued to condemn his parcel of land. After a protracted court battle, the city recently acquired the title. The same will soon be true of Rhadames Solano, a retired high-school running coach who spent 16 years turning an empty rectangle of vegetation into family-friendly "poor man's club" where underserved Hispanic families kick back and play soccer. His land is also being taken through eminent domain.
The worst part, they say: The city doesn't even need their land. City Hall's dream of a gleaming convention center for horses is all but dead. If the harness racing facility and RV hookups do get built, it will take an enormous infusion of money from private donors who so far haven't materialized or from taxpayers, who have already been stuck with a sizable bill, and it won't happen for years.
The city insists it needs the land for other reasons. Sarah Standifer, assistant director of Trinity Watershed Management, says it's been a major goal of the Trinity River Corridor Project all along to acquire land within the Trinity River's 100-year floodplain, with a particular emphasis on snuffing out "illegal uses," a catch-all phrase used by the city to describe everything from unpermitted dumping and illicit marijuana groves to, in the case of the Solano and the Let's Cowboy Up properties, having unpermitted structures that would be inundated by the Trinity in a catastrophic flood.
Then there's the "doughnut hole," a concept to which Solano was first introduced in December 2011. Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan was explaining to the City Council why the city would be justified in taking the two parcels of land through eminent domain. The authoritative way she used the phrase made Solano assume that it was some legal term of art. Further research proved he'd been mistaken. "Doughnut hole" was a reference to how the two properties looked on a map, ringed in by city-owned land.
The city, it dawned on him, was taking his land because of a pastry metaphor. After losing his land, Woods pleaded his case to Councilman Dwaine Caraway, who had once put in an appearance at a Let's Cowboy Up event and declared it wonderful. Caraway, Woods says, was sympathetic but offered no help. Southern Dallas' other councilmembers were even less helpful.
"Tennell Atkins, he didn't really want a part of this," Woods says. "The one that's over Pleasant Grove -- what's her name? Vonciel Hill? She acted like we didn't even exist."
The Texas Horse Park looks nice. It's not just the general shabbiness of this semi-rural corner of Pleasant Grove, where rows of clapboard houses butt up against cramped squares of pastureland, and where makeshift horse stables, open drainage ditches and a general lack of sidewalks hints at generations of official neglect. In a part of town so desperate for an injection of newness, a $15-million-plus equestrian facility is bound to stand out.
Out front is a sturdy monument made of rough-hewn sandstone and adorned with a tastefully rusted steel nameplate. Through the entry gate is more sandstone -- this and the gently sloping metal roofs are the central design motif -- complemented here by stained cedar, there by panels of matte aluminum.
The buildings designed for people are all floor-to-ceiling windows and natural light. It's easy enough to imagine bride and groom exchanging vows as the evening sun warms the banquet hall, or a pair of designer cowboy boots sashaying across the polished concrete floor during an evening charity soiree.
The horse barns lack the picture windows but are pleasantly light and airy thanks to a clerestory roof that bathes the wood-paneled central corridor with a warm glow. The stalls on either side are spacious. It's easy to imagine them filled with horses, their contented snorts echoing off the walls. Southeast of the main barn, a just-finished corral glints like chrome in the August sun. To the north, a cavernous, open-walled rodeo arena will soon be ready for 5,000 guests -- the centerpiece of an undeniably handsome facility that will provide a lovely backdrop for Equest and Wayne Kirk's River Ranch when they begin operations there this fall.
The two nonprofits will be obligated to provide a certain percentage of their services to poor people from southern Dallas to justify their free rent, but the city may have already missed its best opportunities to meaningfully engage the community. Had it stuck with the original plan and built a modest equestrian center, southern Dallas' many native horse owners would have had a pleasant place to ride. As built, the Texas Horse Park will be closed to them, unless they want to mount rented horses.
Another option would have been to forge a meaningful partnership with an organization in Pleasant Grove. Going into the project, the city had a thriving network of native horsemen with expertise and knowledge of the community to tap. Not just Woods, but people like Paul Allen of the Buffalo Soldiers and Interstate Cowboy BJ Brantley, who cuts a striking figure when he guides his horse along a bluff overlooking Interstate 45 many mornings. Both do considerable outreach. The riding clubs are rougher around the edges, perhaps, but they have a charitable element, hosting Christmas toy drives and the like, and they're deeply embedded in the community.
Instead, City Hall shunted the community aside. Asked why the city didn't work with Woods, Standifer explains that there are four or five black cowboys working with underprivileged kids. The city's vision was for something grander, capable of drawing Mary Kay conventioneers by the busload to experience the Dallas they've always dreamed of.
The horse park also looms over Billy and Zada Pemberton. A retiring elderly couple, their family has inhabited the scrubby, flood-prone acreage just north of the horse park since acquiring it from Dallas founder John Neely Bryan's widow a few generations back. (It was while living there that Dallas' founder went mad, either from drink or schizophrenia, and was sent to an asylum in Austin.) They gave the horse park its address, Pemberton Hill Road. There's been no move to force them out, but city officials confirm that they eventually plan to acquire their property, and the Pembertons eye their comings and goings with unease.
Brantley and Allen, the cowboys, are still hoping to forge a meaningful bond with the park. Brantley hopes for a place at the park to continue his work with the troubled teens sent his way by judges or patrol officers. Allen wants to use the park to reconnect kids with their agricultural heritage, and he thinks launching a 4H-type organization at the horse park could provide a place where kids can cultivate and perhaps sell crops and learn enough horse skills to maybe land them a job. A junior version of what Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver did at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute more than a century ago. Both men have informal agreements with Kirk to be a part of the horse park. Neither has anything in writing.
"He seemed on board," Allen says of a conversation he had with Kirk about a year ago. "We had talked about setting up a meeting later on." Kirk was supposed to get back with him, but Allen hasn't heard anything yet.
Whatever happens with the horse park, Woods won't be part of it. After being booted off his property, he tried to reestablish the organization in Seagoville, but it didn't take. So Woods walked away from everything -- all the sweat he'd put into the land, the plans he'd dreamed up with Rhoades, his hope of effecting change in Pleasant Grove.
He moved with his family back to Euless, where it's safer and the schools are better, and he sold all nine of his horses. He still keeps in touch with Rhoades, but when she suggests he find a way to continue his work, he's reluctant.
"It hurts a lot now," he says. "Knowing that I invested all that time and energy, and it was all wasted for nothing."
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