Remaining Time -0:00
This is a modal window.
Foreground — White Black Red Green Blue Yellow Magenta Cyan — Opaque Semi-Opaque
Background — White Black Red Green Blue Yellow Magenta Cyan — Opaque Semi-Transparent Transparent
Window — White Black Red Green Blue Yellow Magenta Cyan — Opaque Semi-Transparent Transparent
Font Size 50% 75% 100% 125% 150% 175% 200% 300% 400%
Text Edge Style None Raised Depressed Uniform Dropshadow
Font Family Default Monospace Serif Proportional Serif Monospace Sans-Serif Proportional Sans-Serif Casual Script Small Caps
Dallas is suing a nonprofit called River Ranch Educational Charities, accusing it of "unlawful trespass" at the city-owned horse park near the Great Trinity Forest. And that is a very big deal.
It might also be the least surprising sentence I have ever typed.
Because some time has passed, allow me to refresh your memory: River Ranch was one of two nonprofits that city officials selected in 2012 to run the Texas Horse Park off Pemberton Road in southeast Dallas. That’s the horse park officials once touted as "the convention center of horses" — until a group tasked with raising the $100 million for the venue’s construction came up $100 million short. It’s the horse park Dallas turned over to nonprofits when every for-profit said nay.
River Ranch got the deal, along with the nonprofit Equest, only because the city could find no other takers. A lot of people thought that was a bad idea because River Ranch’s founder and president Wayne Kirk had been accused of animal cruelty and failing to pay his bills. City officials who no longer work at City Hall brushed off those allegations as no big deal, or blamed them on Kirk’s employees.
But for five years the city has sent Kirk letters concerning various violations at the horse park. And that’s how we landed in this pile of … lawsuits.
The city now wants to kick out Kirk and River Ranch. City attorneys say River Ranch breached its contract by failing to carry insurance — a longstanding concern the city says was never remedied. The tussle came to a head last year after a Texarkana woman filed a lawsuit in Dallas claiming she’d been injured during one of River Ranch’s trail rides.
As a result, the city told River Ranch on Dec. 3 that it was terminating the nonprofit’s contract and that it had 90 days to vacate the premises. But the nonprofit is still there — "unlawfully trespassing upon the premises," says Stacy Jordan Rodriguez, an assistant city attorney.
Kirk and his McKinney attorney Don Flanery say the nonprofit has no intention of leaving.
Rodriguez and interim City Attorney Chris Caso were in court Thursday hoping state District Judge Bonnie Lee Goldstein would grant a temporary restraining order giving them the OK to boot River Ranch from four buildings it currently occupies at the Texas Horse Park. "We want a peaceful transfer from them to us," Rodriguez said.
But Flanery filed a motion to move the proceedings to Collin County, where the nonprofit says it’s based. He bought a week, at least.
"They don’t have any basis for it," Flanery said of the city’s lawsuit. "And that will all be played out in the fullness of time."
Then-city manager A.C. Gonzalez talks to Wayne Kirk, right, as council members toured The Texas Horse Park on May 7, 2014.
You could’ve seen this coming years ago. I daresay many people did. This newspaper’s editorial board begged, repeatedly: "Dallas City Hall needs a better partner than a horse abuser for its equestrian center." And, "It would be better for the city of Dallas to keep its new horse park closed than to open it with Wayne Kirk as operator." The Dallas Observer and D, too, called out the puzzling partnership, which came with a 21-year rent-free lease and the opportunity for two more five-year re-ups.
Kirk came with so many red flags you could have made a quilt out of them.
In 2013, the Observer and The Dallas Morning News reported that Kirk had been accused of animal cruelty after investigators found malnourished horses on his nonprofit’s Storybook Ranch in McKinney. The next year, our Roy Appleton reported that Kirk had been convicted in municipal court of cruelty to a horse, and that he’d been sued repeatedly over unpaid debts, and that liens had been placed on River Ranch property because of unpaid taxes and dues.
On May 7, 2014, the Dallas City Council took a field trip out to the Horse Park for a "progress" tour, after which they decamped to the Trinity Audubon Center. There, North Oak Cliff’s council member Scott Griggs asked then-Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan about the allegations against Kirk. Reluctantly, Jordan mentioned the 2011 animal cruelty conviction and said the city had "looked into" the alleged unpaid bills and taxes "and a laundry list of things," including "a number of lawsuits" and dead elk on property in West Texas.
Griggs chided the city for its lack of due diligence: "Shameful," he said, chiding then-City Manager A.C. Gonzalez for his staff’s failure to look into Kirk’s history. He demanded the city terminate the contract and look for another operator.
But some of Griggs’ colleagues fought back. Carolyn Davis, who recently pleaded guilty to taking bribes from a low-income housing developer, said it all just wasn’t true. Vonciel Jones Hill, raising her voice, said she was "irritated" at Griggs for "throwing stones." Tennell Atkins, whose district abuts the site, said, "Please do not rain on the horse park parade today."
The parade was a bust. The Texas Horse Park was supposed to be an inexpensive amenity for Pleasant Grove and southeast Dallas. Then ambitions grew and it turned into a $100-million world-class blah blah blah. Now, funded with about $15 million in bond money, it’s neither.
Four years after the groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting, the horse park is just one more in a long line of broken promises tied to the Trinity River Corridor Project. You’ll hear some council members mutter it from the horseshoe whenever another project threatens to ride off the rails and slides toward becoming an expensive boondoggle.
The Texas Horse Park. Said like an epithet.
Mayor Pro Tem Tennell Atkins, at podium, and other past and present dignitaries at the dedication of the Texas Horse Park at 811 Pemberton Hill Road in southern Dallas on Feb. 19, 2015.
I went to see Kirk out at the Horse Park Wednesday morning. First I was told he was wouldn’t be available to talk until later in the day. But 10 minutes later Kirk came out, dressed head to toe in pressed denim, all smiles. We shook hands. I told him I was there to talk about the lawsuit.
"They’re full of it," he said before telling me to call Flanery. But then Kirk kept talking, about how he’s "doing this for the kids" and how the neighborhood churches love River Ranch and how he’s "locked into this" since he’s selling his McKinney land. He kept insisting the lawsuit was "just a land play," and that the city wants its property back is so it can build hotels for people using the Trinity Forest Golf Club a few minutes away.
"They’re doing anything they can to get rid of us," Kirk said.
City attorneys rolled their eyes when I asked about that Wednesday night. It’s about an injured woman, Caso said, and a business partner than doesn’t have the insurance to cover it.
"We will be seeking another operator," Caso said. "That is our goal."
The judge will rule on the city’s request for a temporary restraining order on April 18. Giddy-up.