Dallas park officials would probably prefer that you not read this article. You can't really blame them, though. You might not be interested in publicity either if you were talking about replacing most of a pastoral Dallas park with 40 soccer fields and 1,600 parking spaces--all of it belonging to Mesquite.
That's the way Dallas lawyer Hugh Brooks sees it anyway. Brooks is on a difficult quest to keep the "farm" in the Dallas' Samuell Farm, a 640-acre tract of parkland located between Sunnyvale and Mesquite. But, during his more than one-year effort to create an equestrian center and educational working farm for the city's underprivileged children, Brooks has met perplexing resistance and at times even anger from city officials who act as if he is a nuisance, he says.
"Things were dragging on and dragging on and dragging on," he says. "I've really never had any cooperation."
Brooks figures that the reason he is being stonewalled isn't because his nonprofit group gave the city a weak proposal for Samuell Farm. The formal proposal from the "Friends of the Farm" conforms to city standards, and it seems to make sense.
The group proposes taking over the farm as a concessionaire and paying to improve it. It would manage the property, and profits would go back to the farm and city. In October Brooks' group gave the city a formal bid for the Samuell Farm concession. It spells out exactly what his group is offering, which includes corporate sponsorship of a new equestrian center with an arena that would offer opportunities for horse riding and generate revenue from boarding horses.
"We submitted a proposal that said in the next three years based on cash flow alone we'll reinvest about $3.1 million at no cost to the city," Brooks says. "We'll provide educational and recreational resources to the city of Dallas that have never been available. We'll bring top-quality educational classes out there."
The reason the city doesn't seem much interested in Brooks or his group isn't that the idea is bad, he says. It's because the city sees the proposal from the city of Mesquite to build soccer fields as an opportunity to make money and to rid the city of the management headache that Samuell Farm represented for years, Brooks says.
Dallas officials don't quite view it that way, or at least they don't come out and say so. Carolyn Bray, assistant director of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department, says the Mesquite proposal is being considered seriously because the development of soccer fields could be good for Dallas. It's a plan that would keep a park on the property and possibly pay Dallas money. Besides, she says, there is a big need for soccer fields.
"There is a huge, huge, huge soccer need throughout the city, and it will also allow for the city of Dallas to utilize those fields as well," Bray says. "Whatever revenue they generate from the reservation of those fields or the use of those fields would in fact be placed back into the Samuell Farm or the Samuell trust fund."
Park officials refused to provide a copy of Mesquite's proposal.
Bray would not reveal what a panel assigned to study the proposals will recommend that the city do with the property. But, she says, both proposals are viable and "exciting" and the city is taking both proposals "very seriously." Representatives from her department hope to meet with Paul Dyer, park department director, this week to discuss the proposals, she says.
Willed to the city by Dr. W.W. Samuell when he died in 1937, the property was supposed to be used as a park in perpetuity. At first, only bird watchers and campers used the land. In the early 1980s, the city opened Samuell Farm, which was supposed to let children learn about animals and farming in a realistic setting.
As an agricultural laboratory, Samuell Farm seemed to be popular. Sometime in the past 10 years, however, the working-farm concept faded away and the city managed the rest of it into the ground. Complaints about mistreatment of animals first led to the removal of the animals and added to the farm's loss of purpose. As recently as late 2000, the city was still toying with the farm concept and talked about perhaps creating a "pizza" farm where children could see how pizza ingredients are grown. That was while most observers assumed the property was supposed to stay a farm of some sort.
Now city officials say it is not clear that Samuell's true intention for Samuell Farm was that it become a farm in the first place or remain one. That issue bogged down the recent proposals for the property, Bray says. Until recently the city said on its Samuell Farm Web site that Samuell wanted the tract of land to "be used as a farm park for young people." The statement, which was also posted on the park property, has vanished from both places, Brooks says.
Bray says the city's lawyers spent a month researching legal documents related to the donation and gave her a definitive answer Friday. Their research, which would seem to clear the way for the Mesquite soccer fields, turned up nothing that said Samuell wanted the property to remain as a working farm, she says.
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"We heard back from them basically saying that there is no legal documentation anywhere saying we can only use it as a farm," she says. "It's very clear that it has to be for park purposes."
Bray says if her department can get a decision from Dyer by this week, they could bring the options to the park board within the next two or three weeks. One of the two proposals could be accepted and work started at the park as early as this summer, she says.
Brooks says that logically, the city should jump at the opportunity to create a healthy learning environment for children and one that would not cost taxpayers a penny or involve any effort on the part of city staff beyond representation on a Samuell Farm advisory board. But, he says, hostile reactions and silence from the park department speak to other issues that are involved, including politics. Brooks is convinced that the Mesquite proposal is the favored one and that it probably will involve bulldozing the farm's existing buildings, including Samuell's historically significant summerhouse on the property.
"During the discussion of the proposed bid they [Mesquite] asked if they had to maintain the buildings that they didn't want, and one of the park employees said actually we'll bulldoze them if you want. I thought, 'That thud was Dr. Samuell sitting up in his casket,'" he says. "The city's goal here is to divest itself of any future obligations on the property. No one wants responsibility for it within the constraints of the deed restrictions."