Rearing up: Paint horse relocation sets stage for growth

Cast-bronze artwork by Gainesville-based sculptor Marrita Black and commissioned for the American Paint Horse Association's headquarters at 2800 Meacham Blvd., in Mercantile Center. The APHA contracted for the design and construction of the building and for the art and then moved into the facilities in 1999.

It’s a big deal for both parties: In a move toward revitalizing its business, the American Paint Horse Association plans to relocate to the Fort Worth Stockyards’ Horse & Mule Barns at East Exchange Avenue, giving developers a link to a key historical component during the Stockyards’ redevelopment.

Officials at the Fort Worth-based APHA say they plan to relocate their headquarters, 45-member staff and retail store in winter 2017-2018 from the organization’s home since 1999 – the Mercantile Center business/industrial park in northwest Fort Worth – to a south-end section of the Stockyards West Horse & Mule Barn.

A final contract lease agreement is still being negotiated with the owners of the West Horse & Mule Barns site, Fort Worth Heritage Development, LLC/Stockyards Station. But sources for both parties involved say they’re optimistic about reaching a deal by end of summer.

The APHA proposal is the first of what’s expected to be a stream of forthcoming new tenants for the two 1912-vintage Horse & Mule Barns, which will be restored and upgraded in coming months.

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“We have signed a letter of intent to sign a contract to move to the Stockyards,” said Billy L. Smith, executive director of the 50,000-member APHA, which has generations of quarter horse breeding roots dating to the early 1960s in Gainesville, Abilene and Amarillo. The APHA’s mission today, according to its website, is to “collect, record and preserve the pedigrees of American Paint Horses, and to stimulate and regulate all matters pertaining to the promotion, history, breeding and exhibition of this breed.”

“We’re very excited,” said Fort Worth Heritage Development marketing director Dena Newell, noting that the APHA “fits perfectly” into the developer’s plans to include an “equine focus” in the Stockyards project.

Other prospective tenants for the Horse & Mule Barns are being considered and some are already in lease negotiations, Newell said. Fort Worth Heritage Development’s historic East and West Horse & Mule Barns are scheduled for a $45 million overall investment in an extensive restoration, renovation, preservation and upgrading project involving a combined 180,000 square feet of leasable floor space. Work is set to begin this fall, with completion in 12-18 months. Fort Worth Heritage Development is a partnership of Fort Worth-based Hickman Companies and California-based Majestic Reality Co.

With the APHA relocation and Stockyards upgrade timetables staying on track, the APHA U.S./international home base will be installed into about 10,000 square feet by late 2017 or in the first quarter of 2018, the negotiating parties indicated.

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The APHA, Smith said, is already years into “retooling our whole business model to become much leaner and much meaner” by downsizing for more efficiency with cost-cutting; enhancing member services; and expanding equestrian competition accessibility, affordability and variety – to reboot APHA membership and horse ownership.

The association values the relocation as a long-term marketing move that will foster the American Paint Horse brand and brand loyalty, he said.

Smith sees the move as one of many innovations designed to rekindle the centuries-long American love affair with the horse that has languished to some extent since 2004-2008 when the horse business was hurt by a number of factors, including an oversupplied horse population and plunging demand exacerbated by the Great Recession; the horse trade’s loss of legal tax deductions; continued shrinkage of rural society; the decline in popularity of Western movies and TV shows; and intensifying competition for recreation dollars.

As the all-breeds horse industry’s participation and investment as a whole shrank by 40-50 percent, the APHA suffered an approximate 50-percent plunge in membership from a 2004-2005 peak to 2014. Membership slid from about 107,000 in 2004-2005 to just over 50,000 in 2014, holding largely steady since then, according to an APHA report.

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“We’re hitting the bottom,” Smith predicted.

Accordingly, he said, the APHA has cut headquarters staff from about 150 people in 2004-2007 to 45 now.

Although the current headquarters site is a beautiful building on a landscaped site in the Mercantile Center along Meacham Boulevard in northwest Fort Worth, Smith said simply, “We don’t need as much space.”

That translates to the APHA headquarters with a staff at one-third of its peak not needing the current 40,000-square-foot home space in its own 1999 contracted-new building. APHA already has leased a portion of that space.

“Now we’re retooling to the size to grow again,” Smith said, adding that the association hopes that income from leasing the current headquarters’ remaining space to other tenants will cover most if not all of the Stockyards site’s leasing costs.

APHA leaders and staff also see the Stockyards area – with its city and private commitments to preserving its historical roots, renovating the area and drawing other like-minded organizations and businesses to locate there – as crucial to nurturing, marketing and preserving Western heritage, culture and pastimes, Smith said. All are APHA goals, he said.

The current headquarters site with its retail store is off the commonly traveled paths of tourists and entertainment-seeking Metroplex residents.

“We want to get our message and our brand in front of the largest audience we can,” he said. Smith was hired to take the executive director’s post in February 2012. He left an American Quarter Horse Association management role.

The APHA retail store – which does business online and inside its headquarters building – could witness the greatest short-term bottom-line impact from relocation.

Smith forecasts that in just one day at the upgraded facilities in the new site, the shopper/customer and potential new-member traffic could approach and perhaps exceed the on-site volume posted in one year at the current location.

“The traffic volume in one week would exceed our current yearly pace, for sure,” Smith said.

The focal point of the new site – and the entire Horse &Mule Barns renovation, Newell said – will be the APHA’s Legacy of Color sculpture of four paint horses, which stands10-12 feet tall and stretches more than 40 feet in length. Gainesville sculptor Marrita Black created the artwork for the APHA’s then-new home in 1999. The authentic looking bronze horses weigh about 7,500 pounds, without the heavy concrete-buttressed pedestal.

The APHA headquarters and signature sculpture will front on a beautified Stockyards’ Mule Alley and will be across that street from a planned new boutique hotel.

Fort Worth Heritage Development has vowed that its plans for the area will deliver on the promises it made publicly to area citizens, historical preservationists and the Fort Worth City Council. The development’s plans have received criticism from a variety of stakeholders in the area who say the new plans will not be in keeping with the area’s historic character. The city appointed the Historic Stockyards Design District Task Force to develop standards for the development and the job wasn’t easy, according to Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price.

“It probably has to have been the most trying task force that we’ve put together in the last year or two,” she said last August.

Newell said Stockyards-related leasing plans call for “creating an authentic area.”

That translates, she said, into drawing local and regional (not major chain) tenants with a substantial measure of business ties, themes, products, services and images reflecting Western/Southwestern culture and Fort Worth’s Western heritage.

Generic tenant categories will likely include a farmers market, local/regional cuisine restaurants/cafes, local beverage brewers/distillers, livestock associations and maybe more equine breed or performance-focused associations.

The Fort Worth-based National Cutting Horse Association has indicated that it considered relocating its headquarters to the Stockyards area, but has decided for now to stay in its current location at 260 Bailey Ave. Jim Bret Campbell, NCHA executive director, said the association might in the future reconsider such a move to the Stockyards.

Among the businesses rumored to be considering the Stockyards for a new home is RFD-TV, the cable channel.

“We are talking to them,” Newell said, but declined to elaborate.

Definitely on tap, Newell said, is a returning and growing lineup of Western-themed, equine/livestock or related events, such as the annual July 4 Stockyards family activities, July 23 National Day of the American Cowboy celebration and the Sept. 29-Oct. 1 live auction of longhorn cattle in the Stockyards Exchange Building’s “refreshed” Auction Arena.

The area’s current and prospective business lineup, which includes the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame and Hyatt Place hotel, has made Smith even more optimistic about relocating there.

“That’s just a perfect cocktail for us,” he said.