After Prematurely Selling Bonds, City Urges Nonprofit to Fund Design of Scaled-Down Version of Texas Horse Park

WillisWinters.JPG
Robert Wilonsky
Park and Rec's assistant director, Willis Winters, at Main Street Garden's construction site in October.
In case you missed it, the nonprofit folks over at the Trinity Trust and Texas Horse Park, Inc. flew media types and others in a helicopter last week to check out the 600 acres upon which the Texas Horse Park is expected to be built. Invited guests included D's Glenn Hunter and Krista Nightengale, along with John Meyer of Pegasus News and someone from something called Bisnow.

Their stories focused on THPI's push toward a goal of raising $1 million by May 15, which was only three days after the helicopter ride. They told the joyriders they only needed $80,000 to reach that mark. But what then? We only ask because, if you've been playing along at home, this project appears, at a distance, at least, to be be stranded in the stables.

THPI, which recently hired The Reeds Public Relations Corp. to lobby council members, remains eager to keep the project afloat. Which hasn't been easy.

In December 2007, the city council's Trinity River Corridor Project Committee put the brakes on an upcoming agenda item authorizing $2.6 million to be spent on design and construction administration for the horse park. Committee members were rightfully concerned that THPI had raised just $300,000 despite signing a contract with the city in October 2007 in which it agreed to raise $15.4 million toward construction of the horse park and another $500,000 to be put in a reserve account for operating expenses by September 2008.

The city's contribution in the contract totals $17.6 million: $2.6 million from the 1998 bond program and $12 million from the 2006 bond program toward construction, $2 million from the '06 bond program for land acquisition and $1 million from the general fund to subsidize the first four years of operations.

THPI blamed its fund-raising woes on the Trinity River toll road referendum, which had ended one month earlier, but that proved to be a red herring since the project continued to stall. However, the reports from the helicopter ride had THPI aiming to break ground in fall 2011. (Of course, the horse park would be open by now had THPI met the terms of the contract.)

So we contacted Jaymie Sanford Sattiewhite, executive director of THPI, to get an update because it's already been more than a year since we last checked in with THPI and were told to go away because it was in its "quiet period" of fund-raising. Quiet indeed.

After Sattiewhite confirmed that THPI had reached its million-dollar goal, we asked where it came up with next year's groundbreaking date. She said there has been no modification to the contract with the city and stressed that THPI is hoping to break ground in 2011.

Naturally, we expected a new fund-raising total to back that up. So, how much has THPI raised so far?

"Um, I don't have that exact information with me," Sattiewhite told Unfair Park.

She said the million bucks wasn't the only dough they've raised but couldn't ballpark the rest. "We are still in the middle of our capital campaign. We've got a lot of gifts on the table."

As she has been in the past, Sattiewhite was evasive when answering questions, even strangely distancing from THPI's involvement in the helicopter event.

"Actually, the Trinity Trust hosted that," she said.

Well, obviously you worked in concert with them, right?

Pause. "Um, for the most part, it was their event for us."

She then said that Mary Rhoades, a THPI board member, and her husband own Zebra Air, which provided the helicopter service.

"I know I sound kind of like I'm not giving a lot of information, but there's just a lot that I really can't speak on now," she said. "But we're hoping that we're gonna break ground and have a construction date at the end of 2011."

We hoped Dr. Gail Thomas, president of the Trinity Trust, might be more forthcoming, but she did not return a phone call seeking comment about the horse park.

Then we turned to the city, first speaking with Rebecca Rasor, managing director for the Trinity River Corridor Project. Rather than rehash our conversation, we'll simply note that the communication between the TRCP office and THPI appears to be nonexistent.

Finally, we chatted with Willis Winters, assistant director of the city's Park and Recreation Department. Surprisingly, when we asked if the '06 bonds had been sold for the horse park, he said the council authorized the sale in March.

However, Winters says the sale has been "a blessing" for his department, as the funds have been reallocated to the Trinity River Standing Wave, various playgrounds and several projects at Fair Park, including the Cotton Bowl expansion and renovation. Once bonds are sold for these projects, they will replenish the money taken from the horse park.

Of course, this contradicts the expenditure report given to the TRCP Committee on Tuesday, which listed more than $9.8 million in '06 bonds yet to be sold.

Winters says the city has spent approximately $2.8 million thus far on the horse park: $2 million for the land and $800,000 toward the master plan, site selection and various studies.

He doesn't know who officially challenged THPI to raise the million dollars, only that it wasn't his department, but he says it was done to prompt THPI "to send the right signal to the city of Dallas that they're a solvent organization and that the project will continue to move forward."

Now that it has apparently done so, Winters says the city has offered THPI a proposal: Fund the $200,000 schematic design for a smaller version of the project that will cost roughly $10 million because the city is in no position to pony up any dough.

"It's going to be very difficult for the city to put any of the bond money on the table right now throughout the budget deliberation process, so we're reluctant to do that," he says.

If THPI agrees, the design process could continue through the summer, and then by the beginning of the new fiscal year (October), the city would be in a better position to match THPI's funds.

So, even if this project's budget gets cut from a $30 million project to a $10 million project, the city will still make sure it splits the cost evenly, right? Right?

"Based on the sentiment that I've heard from both the committee and from the city manager's office, it will need to be an equal match -- an equal partnership between the city and the nonprofit," he says, adding that the city would only kick in more if it's willing to operate the horse park, "which I don't see that happening."

Winters says the city is "growingly optimistic" about the horse park getting built, "more so than we've been in quite a while." And, at least for now, THPI is the best group to emerge as a partner.

"There's no one else out there on the horizon that's stepped forward to take on the project and be our partner with this," he says.


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