Metropolis: Wednesday, September 10, 2003
Hype on the Hoof

Figuring the effect of the Fort Worth Herd involves more than counting cows.\r\n


It’s a cloudy, muggy weekday in early September, and not the best season or weather conditions to attract tourists. Yet Stockyards Station general manager Gary Brinkley looks out his office window and sees a couple of hundred people milling around on sidewalks at 11:30 a.m., watching the Fort Worth Herd make one of its twice-daily treks down Exchange Avenue.

“Things are going well in the program,” he said of the city’s longhorn herd that was created in June 1999. “There is no sense in rehashing an old issue.”

Brinkley had been asked about the possibility of privatizing the herd, something discussed by city council members prior to the herd’s creation. Brinkley and most city officials didn’t want privatization then, and he doesn’t like being asked the question now, more than four years after the herd, as far as he’s concerned, has proven itself as a public relations bonanza that makes the historic Stockyards district unique.

Brinkley’s boss, businessman and major Stockyards investor Holt Hickman, is even more emphatic about the herd. “It’s one of the greatest things that ever happened to the city of Fort Worth,” he said. “It gives us something that nobody else in the United States has.”

It’s natural that Brinkley and Hickman are fans, since the herd helps the Stockyards, and that’s where they’ve invested. But it’s difficult to find anyone who dislikes the herd, and a large crowd is expected to attend the 3,000th cattle drive later this month. That’s right, cowpokes, the Fort Worth Herd will celebrate 3,000 drives on Sept. 26, in spite of the critics who said it wouldn’t last, it was too dangerous, too costly, or just too damn silly, even for bovine-crazy Fort Worth.

“At the time it was created, I don’t think anyone anticipated it would be so enormously popular or get so much national and international media coverage,” said Doug Harman, president of Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Some troubles have arisen: mischievous and egocentric cowboys, a fired and embittered trail boss, and the unexpected deaths of two longhorn steers vacationing at Fort Worth Nature Center. But the herd has weathered them all and kept on moseying.

The primary critic now is the same one who voiced concerns four years ago. City Councilman Clyde Picht has consistently called for the herd to be privatized, saying investors could own and operate the herd for a fraction of the city’s cost. “Each one of those herd walks costs us about $2,500 for a 15-minute walk down the street,” he said. “Do we get $2,500 worth of revenue in the Stockyards because of it? I kind of doubt it.”

Gauging the herd’s impact on revenues or sales taxes is difficult, so the city relies on an independent company to quantify the herd’s success. Burrelle’s Information Services tracks stories about the herd that appear around the world, and then places a dollar figure on them based on the publication’s ad rate. Free publicity, in other words, that would have cost this much to buy.

“The element most easily measured is the amount of media coverage that it gets,” Harman said. “It has been pretty dramatic. The amount of media attention a city gets has an impact on the number of visitors who come. The herd is very significant and one of the reason why the Stockyards has grown.”

Picht remains skeptical about the financial impact of news articles. “If you count an article in a newspaper in England as having value or potential value in bringing somebody to Fort Worth and say that’s worth $50,000 or $10,000 or whatever it is, that doesn’t necessarily bring somebody to Fort Worth,” he said “We have to have some tangible results.”

Last year, 20 non-local media outlets and publications spotlighted the herd, a figure that’s already been topped in the first three quarters of this year. The media outlets are a wide-ranging bunch, from Asahi Weekly to Black Meetings & Tourism to The Boston Globe.

A picture of the herd and an accompanying story appeared Aug. 3 on the front page of San Francisco Chronicle’s travel section in the high-profile Sunday edition. Chronicle staff writer John Flinn began his story with a little dig at the herd, writing of how he watched the short cattle drive and then turned to a man beside him and said, “Not exactly the Chisholm Trail.”

The other man was a Fort Worth native, who responded, “Out there in Californ-ee, I bet you got bars with mechanical bulls in the back room; well, around the corner at Billy Bob’s, we got a back room where we ride real bulls.”

By the end of the trip, Flinn had contracted Cowtown fever and wrote a glowing account of the Stockyards, the cultural district, Sundance Square, and the unique ability of Texans to wear suits, boots, and cowboy hats and still look hip.

The actual value of press coverage might be vague, but the cost of the herd isn’t. And, as with most city programs, the cost has risen. The city in 1998 estimated the herd would require about $300,000 for start-up costs, including personnel, salaries and benefits, saddles, horses, and program maintenance. In 2000, the first full year of operation, the city spent $382,910, the additional costs attributed in part to an educational program attended by about 10,000 children a year. The city budgeted $463,187 last year, although less than $400,000 was spent, due to unexpected cost savings such as an unfilled employee position. The herd is paid for by hotel-motel bed taxes, which are mandated to be spent on tourism promotion and do not come from the general fund that pays for street or city maintenance.

Harman, whose job is to promote Fort Worth and attract tourists and conventioneers, said the herd is an ace in the hole. “It’s more than just the hotel bed tax it generates, it’s the publicity we get,” he said. “That kind of exposure is invaluable. I think it has come to represent what Fort Worth is, at least what our history is.”

Picht said he likes the herd and realizes it helps publicize Fort Worth, but he said private investors could do it more cheaply. “You wouldn’t have city wages and health costs as part of the cost,” he said. “I would expect it could be outsourced for $150,000 a year. I think there are people who have an interest in the Stockyards who would be willing and able to run the herd a whole lot cheaper.”

A former herd employee who asked not to be named said he and some other investors who were interested in owning and operating the herd crunched some numbers and figured it could be done for $250,000 a year. They figured in about $8 an hour in pay —and no benefits — for the drovers.

Critics of privatization envision a slew of problems, with the biggest being a lack of control. The city has worked hard to ensure that drovers maintain a diverse makeup, including African-American and Hispanic drovers. The current trail boss is female. Some city officials worry that privatization would mean less diversity, and they envision underpaid, irritable drovers fraternizing with tourists all day. They imagine longhorns wearing beer ads on their backs. They see drovers wearing tennis shoes and t-shirts. They wonder if the name would change to something like the Invesco Herd or Pepto-Bismol Herd. They see the herd being rented out for movies or commercials and removed from the Stockyards for lengthy periods, leaving little tourist toddlers crying, “Mommy, where’s all the moo-moos?”

Several investors have approached Hickman with the idea of buying and running the herd. He isn’t interested. “The city can run it better than anybody else can possibly run it,” he said. “They have to have control of it.”

Picht prides himself on being tight-fisted with city money, and he has indicated an interest in running for county commissioner’s court, where budgeting is a primary part of the job. Constituents like a tight fist. But Picht doesn’t have much company on the herd issue. Most city officials welcome the 3,000th cattle drive, and look forward to thousands more.

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