By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Certainly, the city wants it: Without the Cowboys, Fair Park threatens to go on Dallas' endangered-species list. Even before the team made its announcement, the Friends of Fair Park and park department officials and the City of Dallas Landmark Commission met to create a plan for branding Fair Park and selling it to residents.
"The museums at Fair Park are working really hard marketing themselves together as a whole," says Virginia McAlester, a member of the landmark commission. "We don't have quite a critical mass of activities, and we don't have the interconnections between the things that are there for people to really understand...I actually do believe that it would be achievable without the Cowboys if there were simply a core group of people to say, 'We're going to raise some money, and we're going to do this.' But I think the psychological boost of the Cowboys would make it easier and faster."
At the moment, Fair Park is a drain on the city coffers: According to documents provided by the park department, the park brought in $2.8 million during the last fiscal year, with the Smirnoff Music Centre (at $736,000) and the State Fair of Texas ($712,000) accounting for the biggest chunks. But Fair Park costs some $5 million to operate. Worse, the amount of money the park takes in likely would drop substantially if the Cowboys moved in: Smirnoff would be leveled to make room for a parking lot, as would the coliseum, which houses the occasional concert and hockey game.
But city officials and civic leaders with longtime ties to Fair Park insist that nothing but good can come from the Cowboys' arrival. To them, the team is the cavalry in helmets and pads, riding to the rescue of a historical landmark.
"I think, without question, in everyone's mind the Cowboys coming to Fair Park would greatly accelerate the development of the master plan," says Paul Dyer. "Will it still happen? Am I hopeful? I didn't think 10 years ago we would be able to find $110 million from public and private sources to invest in the park, and we have. There is a lot of interest in Fair Park. People do care about it. But there are only so many resources to pass around. If you take the Cowboys and put them in there...I think the organic offspring of what that stadium brings to the park, both in terms of political pressure and the need of creating year-round exhibits, that organic growth would be phenomenal...Will the Cowboys bring a couple hundred million dollars to invest in the park outside of the stadium? Probably not. We hope they would."
And, for now, hope is good enough.
According to the 2000 census, most of the folks living around Fair Park have been there since at least 1969. More than a third of the households brought in less than $10,000 in 1999, according to the census, and about a third of that income goes toward paying rent.
But you don't need government documents to tell you what the naked eye sees on a drive through the Fair Park area. At noon on a Monday, you find middle-aged men sitting on their sagging front porches, children playing in the narrow streets (with the occasional truant officer following behind in a DISD patrol car), women sitting on rusted-out barrels waiting for someone to offer them money or drugs in exchange for their services. For every store that's open for business, there are dozens more boarded up. On Jamaica Street, near Second and Fitzhugh, there sits a beautiful old fire station built in 1924; even the marble dedication plaque remains, bearing the name of Mayor Louis Blaylock, who, 80 years ago, delivered on his promise of better schools, better streets, better garbage disposal, a better Parkland hospital. Blaylock would be appalled by the abandoned firehouse and the neighborhood along with it.
There have been several plans to save South Dallas over the years; some have had names, such as 1995's Fair Park Gateway Revitalization Concept Plan, but most have been well-intentioned and ultimately halfhearted efforts to clean up the streets and, just maybe, bring in a retailer or two. Gateway, hailed by then-Mayor Ron Kirk as "progress" after years of inaction, ultimately died in part because residents were infuriated by plans that would have allowed the city and development corporations to buy land for $1.26 a square foot. Only one real development sprang up, Eban Village, an apartment complex that looks like a rose among the thorns off Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Leo Hicks' South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund, now 17 years old, has also seen few results, despite dropping millions into the neighborhood. (In the interest of full disclosure, my father, Herschel Wilonsky, is on the trust fund board.) Todd Howard, who resigned as vice chairman of the board two years ago, says the only real success story has been a Subway franchise on Grand Avenue, which he says boasted the highest sales volume for the entire chain within a month of opening. But there are many failures: The trust fund is owed more than $300,000 by 16 businesses to which loans have been made over the past seven years. Several of the more delinquent folks have had their accounts turned over to the city attorney's offices for legal action.