Hicks, who took over as the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund administrator last December, is not pleased with what he sees--the shuttered and decrepit buildings that line MLK all the way to Robert B. Cullum and the entrance to the fairgrounds, the vacant and overgrown lots overflowing with garbage, the residents loitering with no places to work or shop. But Hicks, charged with building hope on a foundation of despair, is optimistic. He takes umbrage with unflattering words used to describe the neighborhood. Where a reporter sees decay and blight, the civil servant sees only what could be, what must be for a neighborhood to thrive.
"It's my job to see the potential and to hype it up," Hicks says over lunch at Crayton's, a restaurant in Exposition Park built with a $50,000 loan from the trust fund. "Vision is the ability to see things not as they are, but to see things as they can be, to see things as they should be. I see a vibrant, bustling Fair Park-South Dallas that has the new construction that's so desperately needed, that has the retail outlets, that has the jobs by which people can go to work every day and take care of their families. And it's our job on the trust fund to say, 'We're going to make something happen regardless of whether the Cowboys are here or the Cowboys are in Irving.'"
Ah, yes. The Dallas Cowboys.
Last month, Jerry Jones announced his intention to return the team to its original home in Fair Park, 33 years after the Cowboys retreated to Irving and Texas Stadium. Of the 17 (or so) sites in Dallas and Tarrant counties surveyed by the team's owner, Fair Park emerged as the surprise favorite--surprise not only because it scuttles Jones' plan for a billion-dollar stadium-cum-retail development, but because the announcement heralds the Cowboys' return to a South Dallas considerably different from the one they left in 1971. A low-income neighborhood has become a no-income neighborhood; cracks in the concrete have given way to crack houses; disrepair has turned into a disaster area. Welcome home, Cowboys, to a place where so many of the homes are barely standing at all.
Of course, just because the Cowboys say they want to move back to Fair Park doesn't mean it will happen. The end zone is a hundred yards and a thousand miles away: Dallas County commissioners aren't happy with the Cowboys' proposal, which includes asking taxpayers to fork over $425 million for the $650 million project and comes with a June 30 deadline, which commissioners insist isn't a realistic time frame. And if the Cowboys and county--and the city of Dallas, to a lesser extent--somehow come to a financial agreement, the Republican-dominated commissioners court likely will keep the referendum off the November ballot, to appease GOP candidates fearful of drawing too many Democrats to the polls. Then there's the issue of getting the Legislature to change a law forbidding the use of county money for city-owned parkland, which has been back-burnered because of the acrimonious school finance debate under way in Austin.
Certainly, the Cowboys will be good for Fair Park itself; the art deco buildings will get fresh coats of paint, if nothing else. But what of the neighborhood outside the gates--the people whose vacant lots are filled with visitors' cars during the State Fair of Texas and trash during the other 11 months of the year?
The what-ifs have already stirred nearby neighborhoods that have been left to slumber after years of neglect. Already property values have begun to rise: Houses on the books for $5,000 have sold for nearly five times that, and vacant lots once considered worthless suddenly have value after all. Residents across from the Smirnoff Music Centre say they've never seen so many white folks driving their streets; they also talk of spotting helicopters hovering overhead, perhaps to take aerial photographs to use in development plans.
City officials, who insist they will not tolerate a rise in car-rental and hotel taxes to pay for the stadium and practice fields and museum and Cowboys corporate headquarters, nonetheless pray the deal can be consummated. They see the Cowboys as the area's Great Silver-and-Blue-and-White Hope--a way to bring DART to Fair Park quicker than expected, a way to put into effect a new master plan for Fair Park that calls for the greening of a concrete-gray wasteland, a way to prop up a neighborhood that crumbles a little more each day.
"This is the greatest thing that could ever happen to South Dallas," says Mayor Laura Miller, who, as Dallas Observer columnist, was the most visible and vocal opponent of publicly funding the American Airlines Center a half-dozen years ago. "It's not even a close call. If it doesn't happen, then [Fair Park] gets put as the third priority behind downtown and the Trinity, and we'll get to it when we get to it long after I'm gone. It's not just that the Cowboys will be another great tenant in Fair Park; it's the kind of tenant that's not going to put up with a substandard environment. When we talked about it two months ago, they said, 'We don't want to be an island so that we've got all this going on, and then you step two blocks out and it's a demoralizing area.' So I said, 'If you were to put it there, and you put out a good deal financially on the stadium, the city will make it our priority, with some of our money, to connect downtown to Fair Park.'"
The residents of the neighborhood have heard this before, so they have every reason to be skeptical, dating to the late 1960s, when the park expanded into the neighborhood and the creation of parking lots meant the eradication of huge swaths of homes near Fitzhugh and Second avenues. But all involved, from the Cowboys to city Councilman Leo Chaney, who represents the neighborhood, swear there will be no eminent domain; God help them if they're wrong and the long-suffering are displaced for the long green of the Dallas Cowboys and other interested investors.
"But as far as South Dallas and Fair Park is concerned, the future is now, whether the Dallas Cowboys come here or not," says Leo Hicks, who refuses to hold his breath while those higher on the food chain gnaw at each other. "The future isn't tomorrow; it isn't yesterday. It's right now."
Craig Holcomb, head of Friends of Fair Park, recalls that two years ago, he ran into former Texas secretary of state and current Cowboys political adviser George Bayoud at dinner, and Bayoud asked Holcomb whether he thought the site would be viable for a new Cowboys stadium. Even before that, in the fall of 2001, former Arlington Mayor Richard Greene informed Jones that the Dallas 2012 committee was proposing to renovate the Cotton Bowl as part of its bid to get the Olympics here. Greene, along with Tom Luce and others on the 2012 committee, promised Jones that their plans at Fair Park weren't going to interfere with his future plans for a stadium.
"But he did get to see what was happening at Fair Park, and that might have had something to do with them identifying that as their first choice," Greene says. Indeed, the Cowboys' plans are very similar to those Dallas-based architectural firm HKS Inc. came up with for the Olympics, and the Cowboys are using HKS to design the new stadium.
"I thought it interesting to see and listen to and read some of the comments people are saying, like 'Well, Fair Park isn't big enough, and the old Cotton Bowl site isn't sufficient,'" Greene says. "People aren't thinking big enough. Jerry's plans would be similar to the Olympics, and it would give a giant rebirth and revitalization to all of Fair Park."
Certainly, some of the credit must go to city Councilman Gary Griffith, who began writing letters to The Dallas Morning News in January begging the Cowboys to consider Fair Park. "We must have additional private investment in Fair Park and the surrounding community to realize the potential of this extraordinary asset," he wrote. "The Cowboys hold the key."
Yes, but they don't own the car.
In February, and apparently independently of each other, both Mayor Miller and county Judge Margaret Keliher approached the Cowboys about considering Fair Park. Miller, with the blessings of Chaney and Mayor Pro-Tem John Loza, had a meeting with Cowboys chief operating officer (and Jerry's son) Stephen Jones, political consultant Rob Allyn and Bayoud to discuss their plans. She told the team she wouldn't support a publicly funded stadium unless it jibed with the city's plan to revitalize Fair Park.
She showed them the Fair Park Comprehensive Development Plan, a 53-page document for which the council paid more than $1 million to San Francisco-based Hargreaves Associates. The firm, which delivered its plan to the city council last October, recommended some $186 million in renovations and restorations to the park to make it a year-round venue. The plan calls for everything from the creation of a Museum Green around the Science Place and Museum of Natural History to the opening of Fair Park Boulevard off Haskell Avenue to the restoration of the historic Bank of Lights behind the Hall of State.
"I told them, 'If you're going to pick a location, this is the only location I'd even consider supporting, because it makes sense for us,'" Miller recounts. "I've always said that we've been reactive and not proactive. It's never our priorities; it's always someone else's priorities. You know, Tom Hicks set our priorities doing the AAC deal, Ray Hunt set our priorities when we did Reunion Arena, and now we need to set our priorities and then get our priorities realized."
Within two days of the mayor's visit with the Cowboys, Keliher went to see Stephen Jones to gauge the team's interest in Fair Park, but for reasons different from the mayor's. As far as Keliher was concerned, the only site she could support--and the only site she could see taxpayers supporting--was Fair Park. She wasn't about to ask voters to foot the majority of Jones' bill for a stadium and retail development, especially at the proposed Cedars site between Lamar Street and the Trinity River just east of downtown. A billion-dollar project on 50-cent land seemed, well, wasteful.
"I hate waste," Keliher says. "I hate wasted money or wasted time, and so I just told the Cowboys, 'You know, let's just lay the cards out right now.'"
On February 19, Miller sent Keliher a letter detailing her opposition to the Cedars location. According to Miller's missive, it would have cost $166 million just in environmental remediation and infrastructure improvements, not to mention another $36 million to move the Cadiz Wastewater Pump Station, assuming the Joneses didn't want to build Jerryworld on top of shit creek. Miller told Keliher the city couldn't (and wouldn't) handle the expenditures.
Paul Dyer, head of the city's Park & Recreation Department, says the Cowboys showed real interest only when the team realized there was nearly enough parking already on the site; the team needs some 20,000 spots, and there are already 17,000 within the park's 277 acres.
"My sense was they were needing to go through this process, and they came looking not with casual interest--they brought the designers in; they brought their statisticians in, their financial folks--but you could see after the first couple of meetings their whole attitude shifted," Dyer recalls. "They weren't just passively interested. They were asking really tough questions and saying, 'Well, what about the design? What if we did take the Cotton Bowl out? Who do we talk to, and how do we get a better sense of where we are with this group and this group? Who are the other parties in the park?'"
Ultimately, Stephen Jones credits the mayor and the judge for persuading the Cowboys to reconsider Fair Park. But, he insists, it became the obvious choice when a planned retail development proved too unwieldy and when the team realized the Cedars site had no access to DART. There were, he says, simply "too many moving parts" to make the downtown location work, which made Fair Park more than a convenient fallback; it made it the leading, and only, contender.
Now, Jones likes to talk about the heritage and history of Fair Park. He talks about how he wants to keep Texas-OU at Fair Park, how he wants to get the Cowboys back home. His sales pitch is based on romanticism, tugging at the heartstrings in order to loosen the purse strings. But ultimately, the Cowboys chose Fair Park because it was going to be the easier sell. It's that simple.
"As a political package, it's an easier sell, no question about it," Jones says. "And I think when you think of a venue of this stature, if we can get this pulled off, the amount of people that would come to events is going to...drive investment that will in turn create organic growth. And I think we'll see it."
But when the Cowboys gave the commissioners their proposal on April 30, the vibe was outright contentious as commissioner after commissioner ambled to the podium to tell reporters the team was demanding too much and giving them too little time to negotiate. They were equally appalled by the team's insistence that it would "control all marketing and intellectual property and all economic benefits from all Stadium Project revenue streams"--meaning, everything held in the stadium, from Cowboys and college games to concerts and rodeos and whatever else the place may host.
In other words, the commissioners felt, the Cowboys told the county: Empty your wallet so we can fill ours.
And at least one commissioner, John Wiley Price, is just flat-out against the proposal unless the city of Dallas kicks in $100 million--which Irving has offered to the team to renovate Texas Stadium, should it come to that.
"The romanticism of going back to Fair Park is fine," Price told reporters, "but romance without finance won't get us there." Price is also opposed to the Cowboys moving to Fair Park because there will be no promised economic development around the stadium. It's an odd stance, though, considering that the American Airlines Center was sold to voters with the promise of retail development, yet none has materialized; the same has often been said of Ameriquest Field in Arlington (formerly The Ballpark), which has seen some commercial development around its fringes but little on the site itself.
"I think the public feels burned over having not gotten development from things, rightfully or wrongfully so," says Keliher, who insists that negotiations with the Cowboys are far from contentious. "Commissioner Price was sorry to see it coming without the economic development piece of it, which I can certainly understand, but it's...much cleaner to be selling nothing but a stadium when that's really all anybody can guarantee."
Two weeks ago, the county commissioned California-based Barrett Sports Group to study the economic feasibility of the Cowboys' plans; its report is expected within the next 120 days, far beyond the team's deadline.
At the moment, the Cowboys and the county are about as close to agreement as Donald Rumsfeld is to resigning as secretary of defense. Two weeks ago, the county was still waiting on the Cowboys' response to questions about funding; the county wants the team to pay for the site with user fees, meaning those who use the place pay for it, but the team wants to increase car-rental and hotel taxes, which Keliher and Miller insist they oppose, especially since so many of the people who rent cars in Dallas County are Dallas County residents. (The county doesn't get a cent from cars rented at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.) The Cowboys, of course, disagree, insisting that Dallas' hotel rooms are relatively cheap and a few extra pennies won't matter.
It promises to be a long, hot summer of bickering and bartering.
"We certainly don't expect people just to say, 'Here, let's go do it. Let's all be happy,'" Jones says. "It's hard work to do these. I know we're not going to get discouraged. We're going to continue to be positive, continue to roll up our sleeves and continue to work hard at it, because I believe that this is a very worthy project."
But then there's another part of you, just maybe, that's thinking: Why not build the Cowboys a new home in their old one? Fair Park certainly needs the help; city officials estimate we've already spent more than $150 million over the past 20 years keeping the place from falling apart. The Cowboys being there all but guarantees we will never again have to worry about Fair Park, which is empty most days save for the occasional in-line skater or school group taking a field trip to the Science Place or Museum of Natural History. Consider this statistic: Some 3.5 million people visit the State Fair of Texas for one month each year. Some 3.5 million people visit Fair Park during the other 11 months combined.
If the Cowboys come, the buildings will remain beautiful, and at last they will be used more than a few days annually. The midway will open its gates in the spring and summer, when the team holds its training camp. The aquarium, a diamond that's reverted to a lump of coal, will be overhauled. Grass will be planted, trails will be laid, and a park will finally look like a park 100 years after coming into existence. And there probably will be some economic development around the park. The shriveled arteries, such as Second and Fitzhugh and East Grand and Haskell, will flow with new blood.
"I think it would be fantastic for downtown Dallas to get the Cowboys' stadium," says Richard Greene, who not so long ago showed Jerry Jones some land in Arlington that would hold a stadium and then some. "That would be a bonanza for the city to get the Cowboys back home and get all the things that go with the rejuvenation of the fair. It might be a turning point that would spark the beginning of a whole new era for Dallas. Right now, the proposal is too one-sided; there has to be restructuring. But there's an unknown: There's a magic about the Cowboys and an intangible that goes into the equation no pollster can project with much accuracy. The lure of that blue-and-silver logo is a very powerful image here...and there are an awful lot of people come election day who...will vote yes just because they will want it."
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.
"The seeds have not taken root because people are not willing to work hard enough to make them take root," says Howard, a downtown-based architect. "The board is an advisory board to the city, and the board can say, 'We think instead of giving $50,000 we should take $250,000, or every bit of our commercial loan money, and put it toward a big project.' And nobody has been willing to say, 'What a great idea. Let's make it a top priority.'"
Hicks would like to change all that. He believes you can bring a Wal-Mart into South Dallas and that one big store will give rise to dozens of tiny ones. He even mentions a major pizzeria that would like to open not only a store on Robert B. Cullum but also a strip mall with it. The problem is, Hicks explains, the property has gone from $11 a square foot to more than $60 in the wake of the Cowboys' interest in Fair Park.
The surrounding neighborhoods also have experienced a sudden jump in value. One local commercial Realtor asked Tom Jackson, who owns a garage across Fitzhugh from Smirnoff, to put his property on the market for $3 million, a staggering figure "that just made my jaw drop," Jackson says.
The Dallas County Appraisal District lists most of the houses near Fair Park as valued between $5,000 and $20,000, and for-sale signs that were on front lawns just two weeks ago have already vanished in the neighborhood off Second and Fitzhugh. And there are a number of once-beautiful homes for sale along South Boulevard, the old Jewish neighborhood off MLK.
"I think the neighborhood will evolve," says Friends of Fair Park's Craig Holcomb. "I can say this because I'm gay, but suddenly my gay brethren have figured out that the houses on South Boulevard and Park Row are as big and fancy as the houses on Swiss Avenue, except you can buy them for about a tenth as much money, and you're still 10 minutes from downtown, and you're starting to see that happen. Well, the same thing is going to start to happen all over South Dallas. People are going to start looking at it and saying, 'Gosh, this residential real estate is so undervalued, considering its proximity to downtown.'"
What then happens to the residents if gentrification occurs or developers suddenly find gold among the trash heaps? According to the census, more than half of the people living near Fair Park are renting their property. They simply will be forced to pick up and move. There have been examples of sports arenas saving poor neighborhoods--San Diego's PETCO Park, home of the Padres, is hailed as an example--but only after the baseball team agreed to partially fund the building of a hotel, condos and residential units, a garage and even a water-chilling plant. The Cowboys have said they will limit all their new construction within Fair Park's gates.
"Will there be change if the Dallas Cowboys come?" Hicks asks. "Yes, there will be significant change. Will all of the changes that occur please everyone in this community? Absolutely not. More likely than not, some people will be displaced. More likely than not, some business will be displaced--not so much because the Dallas Cowboys need the land, but because it will spur economic development, and other economic interests will come in to replace the existing economic interests and character of the residential neighborhood. Change and growth are painful...Will some fall by the wayside? Probably. Will it have a greater benefit, though, to the community? Absolutely."
But one need look no further than just over Fair Park's walls to see that you don't need the Dallas Cowboys to change a neighborhood for the better; it is possible, and it need not be so painful.
Much of Jubilee Park, a 282-acre neighborhood bound by East R.L. Thornton Freeway and East Grand Avenue and Fair Park itself, looks like every other neighborhood in the area, with its tire-strewn vacant lots and crack houses and shotgun shacks. It was all but destroyed when the nearby Ford car-manufacturing plant shut down in 1970. Yet in the middle of the neighborhood you find a beautiful park and two new buildings that serve as a community center. There's a stunning head-start school called Davids' Place, which has some 150 children between the ages of 3 and 5, along with two elementary schools, Owen Roberts and Fannie C. Harris, where kids are actually showing up after years of declining attendance. Off-duty cops and a community prosecutor patrol the area, despite the threats by drug dealers who still roam the streets. Children play on the basketball court donated by the Dallas Mavericks. Kids play football coached by an off-duty police officer. There are a few new homes, new curbs and gutters, new life.
Much more is planned, including low-income homes for families and the elderly and new retail and residential complexes along a renovated Grand Avenue. But in just a few years, with private contributions that total well into the millions, Jubilee Park has gone from a dead end to a chunk of land with a chance at survival.
Jubilee Park was adopted, more or less, by St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church near Preston Center, which decided to mark its 50th anniversary by saving a neighborhood. Much of that had to do with parishioner Walt Humann, a beloved figure best known for helping DART get light-rail off the ground and for spearheading the North Central Task Force that got Central Expressway expanded. As chairman emeritus of the Science Place, Humann was familiar with Jubilee Park and brought it to the church's attention. As a result, Jubilee Park has its own extraordinary master plan, done by a respected Boston-based architect, that shames any of the city's own documents in its attention to detail and execution. Planners used aerial photos to identify every building in the neighborhood.
"You gotta really get in the trenches," Humann says one morning, sitting beneath a tree in the park. "If you just take the broad brush, it sounds great politically, but you gotta get right down to it. That house right there, is it available? Who owns it? You have chain-of-title problems in the community. In this park here, there are 50 to 60 separate parcels of land alone. That parcel right there, where that bench is sitting, had 128 owners." He says many of the owners of property in the neighborhood have died without wills, which means the property is spread among the relatives, who have been hard to find. He hopes to have the master plan executed sometime "before I die." He laughs. "But we were told the park would have taken 10, 15 years. I don't know how long this will take, but we really want to get after it."
If the Cowboys become Jubilee's next-door neighbors, great; Humann's all for it. But this area can't wait that long. What-ifs and maybes won't shut down crack houses and repair dilapidated homes and create jobs.
"Please, let's try to do that stadium," he says. "I hope it can happen, but in a way where it's more inclusive of the communities, the Fair Park institutions, the city, county and the Cowboys. Then we can have something that's going to be dynamite." To that end, Humann has gone to the county and city and the Cowboys and proposed putting together a separate task force, as he did for Central Expressway, that would crunch the numbers and find a way for the deal to benefit everyone involved.
It all sounds very utopian, he is told.
Humann smiles and says, "Which is probably why no one's called me back."