Over breakfast one day last March, Bobby Abtahi learned that Mayor Mike Rawlings had appointed him to replace Max Wells as president of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board. The position is more political than it sounds, but Abtahi maintained that he's "not a politician" during a recent interview with the Dallas Observer. "I'm a public servant."
Abtahi is a 35-year-old attorney who makes InfoWars jokes and wears jeans to work. He's also sitting at the center of the debate over the future of Fair Park and, by extension, South Dallas. The Observer caught up with him recently in Oak Cliff. The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
Dallas Observer: Do you consider yourself a politician?
Bobby Abtahi: Yeah, I don't know. I ran for City Council in 2013. That was my brief stint in politics. I'm not very good at them. I lost.
Do you want to be mayor?
I haven’t given it a lot of thought. I'm really focused on parks. I think we have a pretty good mayor right now. He’s doing a good job, especially with all of the hurricane refugees and everyone coming in. I say this a lot, and it may sound cheesy, but whenever the nation’s been focused on Dallas, the mayor has stepped up. Ebola, the police shootings, the JFK anniversary and now the hurricane — he’s risen to the occasion. I don't agree with him on everything, but when the national spotlight is on Dallas, he does us proud.
Is the park board helping or involved with the temporary hurricane shelters here?
Today I had a call with the head of our recreation centers. One thing I didn't think of and I don't think a lot of people have thought of is that we have all these kids now who’ve been displaced from their homes and have nothing to do now. So we’re talking about planning some activities for them. And we’ve looked at other rec centers in case we get an influx of refugees. They're not really refugees, I guess. They’re hurricane survivors. "Refugee" sounds bad. I’ll call them our guests.
Were you surprised when Mayor Rawlings said, "Hey Bobby, guess what, you’re the new park board president”?
A little bit. He didn't really give me a choice. We went to breakfast one day, and he talked to me about a bunch of other stuff. And that was the last thing. He said, "You’ve got to give me an answer now. I'm about to leave."
Were you happy?
Of course. It’s an honor. I kind of had to. No, I didn’t really have to. But when the mayor asks you to do something … I grew up here. I love this city. It's an honor. And it's parks. It’s fun stuff. There are politics and drama involved, but at the end of the day, it's parks.
I always get the park board and the park department mixed up. They’re not the same things.
No. I think it was in 1905 when the city charter was drafted. Whoever drafted the charter ... decided to put the park department in its own little category. So the park department is run by the park board.
We're like our own little mini city because we have our own budget and our own staff, and they report to the park board. I like to think that whoever was around in 1905 thought that parks were so important that they wanted them to be their own deal. Because whenever budget cuts come and things are tough, parks and rec always gets cut first. So this kind of protects us.
Before you were on the park board, you were the chairman of Friends of Fair Park. What’s the story with them? What is its mission?
Friends of Fair Park’s whole goal is to bring people to the park. The biggest thing they do every year, which you probably know about, is Fair Park Fourth. That’s through Friends of Fair Park. The firework show, the sponsorship, that whole deal is all that [is] nonprofit. They also do Dog Bowl, which is one of my favorite events. They basically turn the Cotton Bowl into one giant dog park.
How did your role at Friends of Fair Park prepare you for this one?
Oh man, I think it helped me understand how City Hall works and how the parks department works. We need a lot right now, not just from the city but from private groups. There's so many friends groups out there — Friends of Kidd Springs, Friends of Katy Trail. We need those folks because we're woefully underfunded.
When you look at Dallas compared to other peer cities, we don't rank very well. A lot of private developers are realizing even private development needs green space. Human beings need to be outside, and they need to be around one another, today more so than ever. We're isolating ourselves.
The hot-button issue is now, as forever, what to do with Fair Park. What’s your position?
I still think that it would be better off in the hands of a private management company just because they are more nimble and better equipped to manage the park. I think that as the city grows, the bigger it gets, you’ve got to decide what you can hand off to people who have best practices. I think the Dallas Zoo is a good example; the arboretum is a good example. The zoo, for example ... was in the 150s in number of employees; there was like 150 to 160. Now there are above 300. Their attendance is breaking records every year.
It's not uncharted territory. We’ve done this in the past. I think the difference here is that Fair Park is very political. And whether you like the privatization model or not, I think history has shown, in terms of the zoo and the arboretum, our institutions have thrived. I'm 35 years old. And growing up, it was always the Fort Worth Zoo. Like, "The Fort Worth Zoo is awesome; you’ve got to check out the Fort Worth Zoo."
Yeah. Its finally trying to change course. I think a lot of credit goes to the idea that, “Let's put this in the hands of the zoological society and see what they can do with it.”
Is your model for Fair Park the Dallas Zoo?
That's my business model that I see it as. No two things are the same, right? I think for Fair Park, we need to get more input from the surrounding community. It's not just like the zoo because I don't want them to charge admission to the park. It needs to be a free public space. But I think the zoo is a good example of our most recent way of doing this.
I think you touched on that last week at the — would you call it a town hall?
Whatever it’s called when Bobby Abtahi sits onstage at a bar and …
Everyone yells at me?
Which I was fine with. It was kind of fun. I think the bigger picture is a lot of people are just upset in general with the way things are going in the country and in the city. If they’re upset and need an outlet, that's fine. That's part of democracy, right? I'm not elected, but I'm appointed. I'm a public official.
I think that the reviews are mixed, but probably the number one thing that I heard at the community meetings was jobs. They want jobs in the area and nearby. I don't think that's an unreasonable request. They want to see Fair Park restored. But they also want to make sure that the neighborhood is not repeating the mistakes of the past.
What kind of jobs?
I want to see careers instead of jobs. What that would look like, I don't know. You'd have to ask people from South Dallas. I don't want to speak for them. I think, going back to what I said, we need to sit and listen to them. Fair Park is not going to be the answer to everything that South Dallas needs. It can be a piece of the puzzle, though.
That FCE report (A Great Park for a Great City, published by the nonprofit group Foundation for Community Empowerment) was kind of harrowing. Do you want there to be an actual park at Fair Park?
It depends on the definition of a park. Right now, it's a park, technically, but it's not really a park. I want to see the area green. The buildings are just surrounded by concrete. That doesn't do them any favors, and it doesn't do the park any favors. I'm not sure what it looks like. ... Some people want to put a big park right in the front. And I'm not saying that's a bad idea, but I think a better idea is to go into the community and ask people what they want. Like ask the folks who live around there, "Do you want a giant park in the front? Or do you want to take a lot of the concrete on the inside of the park and kind of green it up?" And the answer may be somewhere in the middle.
I don't have the answer, and it's a really complicated issue. And so that's why I think it’s important to reach out to the cities that have done this well in the past. A good example of what I'd like to see Fair Park become is Balboa Park in San Diego. It's got the old, historic buildings, but it's very green and everything is in context. There's a lot of potential at Fair Park, and it’s the city's fault that it’s gotten to this point.
How do you think it’s been able to deteriorate into the state it’s in now?
Whenever budget times get tough, parks get cut. It happened time after time, and Fair Park just sat there. The buildings are historic, so it’s difficult to do things to them because there are so many restrictions and so many different entities. It just became this perfect storm of bureaucracy and a lack of funding.
Has the park board considered an alternative option to keep Fair Park under the city’s control?
There was some discussion about it. What happened was, originally, there was only one person involved in managing the park and the park board. I wasn't on the board at the time, but the park board sent a management agreement to the council, and the council said let's take it out to RFP [request for proposal]. So that’s come up, and it’s still an option. It's kind of in a weird state because when it goes to RFP, there’s a procurement process, and they have to follow very strict guidelines and state laws.
I haven't really dug into it other than going to the community meetings and listen to kind of what people are saying because I want to let the process work itself out.
Do you think Fair Park should be privatized?
I don't think so. It will never be private land. I don't ever want it to be a place where people are charged admission for everyday use of the park. I want a private company, or I would prefer a nonprofit, to manage the park. To program the park. To figure out how to get more people there.
When people say, "We're privatizing it," it gives a misconception that now the park is owned by someone else. It will always be owned by the city, and whoever manages it will have to come to the park board every year and ask for any type of funding or contract renewal, just like the zoo does and just like the arboretum does. At this point I'm in favor of someone else running the park besides the city of Dallas.
How do you think we, or Dallas, can avoid history repeating itself?
I think the biggest way you do that is to make sure that neighborhood has a seat at the table. I mean an actual seat where they are involved in the decision making. And obviously you need to put protections in place in any contract saying they can't buy land or have eminent domain authority. Getting input from actual people who live there about what they want and don’t want would go a long way in preventing what's happened in the past from happening again. The problem with how we run the city is we come up with a plan and then go the neighborhood and try to sell the plan.
You were on the Plan Commission. Did they do things differently?
A couple of times, we had these community meetings where all these people together along with some ... not moderators, but facilitators. And they’d bring in these great architects and designers. We’d sit in little groups and say, "What do you want to see? This property, what do you want to see this become?"
And afterward they would send everyone a 30-page document explaining everything. The ideas that came out of these meetings, I would never have thought of. In my opinion, it’s a no-brainer. Everything is crowd-based today: crowdfunding, crowdsourcing. This is just the old-school way of doing it. Just go out and ask people what they want. If you give them what they want, they'll use it.
Some people are concerned Walt Humann is going to end up controlling everything at Fair Park.
Originally, he set up the Fair Park Texas Foundation. It was the one that was going to privatize Fair Park. The park board voted on an agreement with him. Then it went to council and council decided to send it out to RFP and get more bidders.
Would you say he’s still the biggest individual player in terms of Fair Park?
As far as I know. Honestly, I haven't paid attention, mainly because I don't want to get involved in the process until it's appropriate for us to get involved. The State Fair happens once a year for less than a month. ... Anyone that thinks that we're just going to get rid of the State Fair is not being very realistic. They have a contract. They bring in millions of people every year. I definitely think the fair needs to stay a part of Fair Park. In what form or fashion, who knows?
I see Fair Park a lot like Zilker Park in Austin. It [Fair Park] has the Band Show, it's got the Cotton Bowl, it's got Starplex. There's so many opportunities for a music festival. And education. The Science Place building is sitting vacant. There’s the Women's Building. I’d love to see Dallas County Community College put their culinary institute in there. Right now, the buildings, though … you can't even go inside the Science Place, it's in such bad shape. I loved going to the Science Place as a kid.
And see, that’s the other thing. What you just mentioned is Fair Park's biggest asset — its nostalgia. If we don't hurry up and do something with it, that nostalgia's going to fade with our generation. Because the generation coming up right now doesn't have any warm, soft, fuzzy feelings, except maybe the State Fair and the Texas-OU game. There was nothing else like going on field trips to the Science Place or IMAX in elementary school. It’s only three miles from downtown. It's time we did something with it.
I don't mean to rag on the city, but they haven’t done a good job. I haven’t seen anything they've done in the past to give me any hope for the future. – Bobby Abtahi
I don't mean to rag on the city, but they haven’t done a good job. I haven’t seen anything they've done in the past to give me any hope for the future. I want the bond to pass, and I think those repairs are necessary. They're all meat-and-potatoes repairs. ... They're all health and safety. They're all to get the buildings back up in shape. Beyond that, I think the city should find someone who’s better at running the park. They're nuts.
There’s flooding in a lot of buildings. There's fire-system issues. There's electrical issues. There's issues with the exteriors, some sort of bacteria on some of them or algae.
That's OK. There's algae inside?
I don't know if it's algae. There's something on the outside. It's like a mold at the Hall of State. If you look at the Hall of State, there's some black … it's like a mildew. There’s all kinds of repairs that need to be done.
Are the RFP and the bond separate things?
I think they're totally separate.
They’re completely unrelated?
I mean, there are some people saying that you shouldn't do the bond until you do the RFP, but for a lot of those people, I don't know if they believe that that money's going to whoever takes over, but it's not. ... That money is going to fix the buildings. We’re not handing it off to anyone.
I've had a couple people tell me that we shouldn't give that money away until we find out who's going to manage the park, but they're not related. That money is going to be spent on those line items, and it's needed regardless.
You think Fair Park needs an overseer apart from the city?
The city will always be the overseer. But I think that we need someone who can focus on it 24/7.
What else is on the park board’s radar?
I think park land acquisitions is important. The more we develop, the less green space we have. The more concrete we pour, the more issues we’re going to have in terms of public space. I call it — and I didn't invent this by any means but heard someone really smart say it — I call it gray, green, blue infrastructure: The gray is the concrete, the green is the green space and the blue is water.
We need to focus on how to have that balance, right? How do we make sure we’re growing, but doing so thoughtfully, so that we’re helping the environment, helping public spaces, making use of public space and trails. The bond is important.
Is homelessness an issue at Fair Park?
Not really at Fair Park. Our downtown parks have homeless people, and I have mixed feelings. I see homeless people as people. Some put them in a lower class, but I see them as equal to everyone else. They’re more than welcome to use the parks, in my opinion. I think the issue is when someone's panhandling or there's crime, then that’s different.
You go to any big city in any part of the world, you're going to have homeless people at the park. It's just part of the fabric of the city. Why shouldn't a homeless person who’s down on his luck be able to sit on a park bench and enjoy it the same as everyone else? Now, when they cross the line, then it becomes a problem. I think as Dallas continues to grow and get denser, we're going to face these issues, and we need to figure them out. I'm trying to be honest with you. I'm not sugarcoating or PC-ing it.
Anything else you want to add about the upcoming bond? It seems like it's pretty historic.
Yeah, I don't like calling things historic. I don't know the full history behind it, but it's definitely important.
Well, for the first time in a long time, the city is placing Fair Park as its own item.
It’s giving voters the power to decide: "Do we think Fair Park is important?" I think it is, and I'm going to be out there trying to convince people it is.
Everything in the parks proposition is important, as well [as] fixing neighborhood parks. A lot of them are in dire straits in terms of playground equipment, ADA equipment. Those need to be fixed up. We need to put money in land acquisitions. The Cedars, where we were the other day, is another part of town that's developing quickly, and it needs a plan for green space.
Are you still involved with Friends of Fair Park?
Not really. I'm a member still. I pay my dues. I'm not on the board anymore. I'm involved with them in the sense that they come to park board meetings for stuff when they want to have events at Fair Park.
The community forums with Fair Park residents we talked about earlier — are those still going on?
We're not quarterbacking it anymore. The council has had a couple of meetings, and the purchasing department had one. I don't know that there are any others scheduled. There will be public meetings on the bond regarding Fair Park, but the RFP, from what I last saw, they're waiting to get the responses back.
In a perfect world, all three of these groups would join forces and get their best ideas together. I don't know if that's allowed to happen or could happen. But I don't care who wins as long as they have the best ideas and a way to implement them.
I read somewhere the park board is “locked in a stalemate” over Fair Park. Is that a fair assessment?
I don't think so. It may just be my honeymoon period. I've only been there three or four months. We haven't really fought over anything. We disagree, but it’s been fun. Everyone comes from different parts of the city. I'm not going to be mad at someone for fighting for their district. As long as we don't personally attack each other, then we're doing OK.
Do you think the process has been transparent?
I think so. Part of the problem is whenever someone is unhappy with the outcome of something, there are buzzwords they use. One of them is transparency. Also "good government" and "fiscal responsibility." Are they transparent? Are we transparent? I showed up that night. I talked to everyone. I thought I was pretty honest. I gave straightforward answers. I'm here talking to you. Our meetings are broadcast every two weeks online. They're archived. Every email we send, everything we do, is public record.
I think folks who say that we're not being transparent, in terms of the park board … it's just a buzzword. They're upset with whatever's going on that day. There are times government in general is not transparent. I think with the internet we can fix that pretty easily.
What’s your relationship with [City Council member] Dwaine Caraway?
He appointed me to the Plan Commission in 2011, maybe. It was a while back. I was a community prosecutor for his district. I was a city attorney that went out with DPD and code enforcement.
You were the city attorney?
No, sorry. I was the lowest city attorney on the totem pole. I wasn't even housed at City Hall. I was at a police station in South Oak Cliff. I was given a little part of town, and they said, basically, “Make this part of town better.” I think we had a lot of success, and once I left, he [Caraway] asked me to be on the Plan Commission for that district.
What was the audit of Friends of Fair Park about?
The city auditor audited everyone ... audited Fair Park years ago. Maybe two years ago. It was called the Fair Park Business Partners Audit. The auditor had some issues with how certain things were done. Some of them were park board-related; some of them involved the Office of Cultural Affairs, which also had some input on Fair Park. I don't know if they fixed everything. Fair Park Board fixed everything a year early.
In your mind, what’s the ideal outcome of Fair Park?
I want to see Fair Park become a place where anyone who is looking for a place to go, to take a stroll or have a bite to eat or just get out from the hustle and the bustle, that's the first place that comes to their mind.
Just to clarify, you have considered an option to keep Fair Park under city control?
I don't care who brings me the plan. As long as it's a well thought-out one that’s going to do right by the city, I don't care who does it. In a perfect world, everyone would come together and come up with a plan. Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world.
The city's had a long time to come up with a plan, and I haven't seen one yet.
I'm not trying to throw blame on anyone else. I'm president of the park board. I take full responsibility for that. The answers have eluded us, and hopefully someone on the outside with some fresh eyes can provide us with some.
What were your feelings about the Trinity toll road?
I really thought that we should focus on parks. I was never a big fan of it. When it came out that it was going to be an alternative 3C, I think it just kind of made everyone realize what a bad idea this is. I was not sad to see it …
Die a painful death?
I think the parks part is important, the State Fair part is important, the streets part is important, the flood control part is really important. What’s happening in Houston is a reminder that planning for the future is not a waste of money. It’s going to be expensive, but it’s important. It goes back to what I talked about earlier about the green, gray, blue infrastructure. Fair Park is in there, and it’s not going to raise taxes.
Last one. Who is Wylie H. Dallas?
I'll tell you off the record. I'm not going to say it publicly.