We began the new year by rehashing an ancient topic: the proposed Texas Horse Park that's been around since the mid-1990s and was part of the $246-million capital bond program for the Trinity River Corridor Project approved by voters in 1998. Reason it never happened: The folks charged with partnering with the city never raised the $15 million they were supposed to pony up before the city sunk $12 million more in '06 bond money into the project. They only came up with $1 million. And that wasn't good enough.
So it stayed in the stable till a couple of weeks back, when Paul Dyer, director of the Park and Recreation Department, told the Park Board and the council's Economic Development Committee that it was time to see if maybe a private operator wouldn't mind taking the reins. The hitch: The city would spend millions to build the park ... and possibly spend millions more on operating and maintaining the facility.
The full council spent hours today debating whether or not to even put out that request for proposals. Because, as Sandy Greyson reminded her colleagues: This is not what voters approved. "We told folks we would have that match," she said, referring to the pledged $15 million. "We don't have that match, and that worries me. ... I don't see the financial base of support outside of city dollars to make this successful."
Earlier Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan said, well, if the city can't find a good outside operator the city could always allow folks with horses to take over the park as tenants. And that, said Greyson, "would make us landlords, and landlords cover costs." Which means the park would "take city funds and take city funds and take city funds forever."
It became clear over the lengthy discussion that spanned the morning and afternoon hours: The council doesn't know what it wants to do about the horse park. Scott Griggs pointed out: Well, you know, the Kentucky Horse Park's asking the state for a hand-out. And if a horse park fails in Kentucky ... Some council members spoke of having "hope," of the need to "take risks"; others still said this is no different than the Woodall Rodgers Deck Park or the convention center hotel. And, as Vonciel Jones Hill put it: "We're talking world class."
Said Hill, "I recognize that some around this horseshoe were here when this project had a different tenor. That hasn't worked for us. However this project should not be abandoned. This project is an economic development. For four years prior to this I was on the Trinity [River Corridor Project] Committee. This was part of the Trinity development and still is. However I did not hear anyone focusing on a way to make this project successful. I knew it was there, but I did not hear anyone say: 'Let's make this successful.' ...
"It's not time to abandon this project. This project has potential to bring untold benefits to southern Dallas. It will not happen overnight. The Arts District did not happen overnight and did not happen without fits and starts. The deck park did not happen overnight and did not happen without fits and starts. The hotel did not happen overnight and and did not happen without fits and starts. Every successful project, including Central, has had fits and starts. This is no different. Yes, there are risks, but if we don't take risks we won't have success."
Hill didn't hear a pragmatic discussion about costs; she didn't hear thoughtful comments about how in the wide, wide world of sports could the park department be expected to upkeep a horse park when it can't even pay for basic maintenance elsewhere. All she heard were objections, she said, "based on the assumption this project will fail. Try the other assumption -- that it will succeed and if it succeeds it will have the kind of impact, the kind of world-class impact, the city of Dallas talks about."
Well, first of all: Angela Hunt and Paul Dyer had to remind the council that the city didn't kick in its contribution to the deck park till the private foundation raised its many millions. And on top of that, Hunt told Mayor Mike to his great surprise, Woodall Rodgers Deck Park Foundation president Jody Grant also had to provide a letter of credit before the city OK'd it -- a $20 million letter of credit, which Grant personally backed. So, no, Hunt said. The horse park's not quite the same thing.
I could bore you with the back-and-forth over this thing; it was fascinating, sure. In the end, it was Linda Koop who made perhaps the most pragmatic suggestion: Retool the RFP to make sure a would-be operator could "bring forth some additional cash [to put] in an operating reserve, which would be one way to structure it." Or: Take the horse park's existing $1 million "and put it in a reserve and go out and ask some of the foundations if they would put money into cash reserves for operating costs."
After all the council members weighed in, Mayor Mike Rawlings had something to say. I tried my best to get down the whole thing; if I mistyped, well, at least you get the gist till the video's available tomorrow.
"Just to summarize where I'm at," he began. "When I face something like this I try to say, 'What are the big issues we're wrestling with?' The Trinity Forest is an amazing asset to this city -- I think we can all agree, the largest urban forest in the United States -- and making sure we leverage that in some way is important. There was a bond election. Voters voted for us to move ahead and spend some money in a way that did have the horse park in there. We have a social obligation with our voters to look at this and give this a college try. You said we're not legally obligated to do it, but there's a social promise that was made there.
"Personally I think it can work if for no other reason than the convention business. I'm amazed we'll be a huge convention business and there's no place to ride horses. It may be a bad stereotype but you come to Texas and there's no horses? ...That's kind of my personal instinct, but I don't care about my personal instinct but I care about the business of this.
"For me I don't want to move ahead with this if we can't raise money. I just don't. The other part of this was private money would be part of this. I'm with Mr. [Tennell] Atkins: I'm not sure we tested [the private sector]. The first group did, but there's been a leadership change. I'm not as informed as I'd like to be. I wanna make some phone calls, get a sense of how much private money's out there and maybe at the end of this we're handing out high fives.
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"I'm confused about how we do business. We need a business plan, a plan that looks at the competitive situation. I saw your map up there but there are other places in Dallas-Fort Worth where you can ride horses. I need to see a pro forma P&L to get to some of the issues Angela's talking about. Is this a pipe dream or something that's doable, because I am not going to support something where we're gonna be spending operating capital. I want to make sure we have a right business plan.
"We get caught up in this term 'world class.' That's odd coming from me ... but I've had a lot of business where you can walk before you run and you can make something that pays out and is a good business plan in one size [and not another]. Sometimes when you scale something you can get out over your skis and get in trouble. We need to make it manageable and make sure we as a city have a lot of leeway. ...
"We owe it to each other to be honest," he said: Do you or don't you want the horse park? If you don't, tell Mary Suhm. "But if this is really a fiscal issue, and most of us agree we don't want to get on the hook on this thing, we should send it back to Economic Development and get that input on the RFP. ... Meanwhile, back at the ranch, if you'll pardon the pun, we need to get on the horn with the private sector and see how much we can raise. ... I am hopeful about this. I want to see this be a wonderful thing to have. But I am cautious as we approach this."
So back to EcoDev it goes. Suhm, clearly beaten down by the day's discussion, added this: "If y'all don't want to do this, just tell me."