Don't Evict State Fair from Fair Park, But Maybe Get It to Squish Over a Little

Oh, look, a sign that looks like an Indian. Must be advertising nose rings on sale at the State Fair.
Oh, look, a sign that looks like an Indian. Must be advertising nose rings on sale at the State Fair.
Library of Congress

I believe when you and I spoke recently about what needs to be done with Fair Park, the city's sadly neglected 277-acre exposition park, I did make a clear distinction between the State Fair of Texas (big and wonderful) and the board that oversees it (small and stubborn). After an extremely interesting and very well attended community meeting about Fair Park Tuesday night, I feel like banging those same two tin drums even louder.

In fact, that meeting was a big head-turner for yours truly. I'll leave it to you to make your own mind up about which side makes more sense in this thing. Maybe the biggest lesson from Tuesday night's meeting before an overflow crowd of at least 450 people is that Fair Park is a thing all kinds of people in Dallas care about deeply, and there are good ideas from every point on the compass.

But the two things I saw most clearly were, 1) almost everybody loves the fair, and 2) the people on the State Fair of Texas board of directors are the least constructive players in this debate.

What debate? You're kidding. We've got this enormous, 130-year-old public space in the center of the city, home to one of the world's largest intact collections of Art Deco exposition architecture, beset and bedeviled by a history of racism but brimming with promise as we move farther out of that dark past. And nobody knows what to do with it.

Why do anything? Because it's crumbling into the dust. Led by the Dallas Museum of Art 30 years ago, the city's major art institutions, all once housed there, have been white-flighting to the new downtown Arts District ever since, leaving behind a landscape that feels post-apocalyptic every time the State Fair shuts down again after its annual three-week run.

There's got to be something smarter and more effective to do with it. (Please do not Google, “jim schutze nuke fair park.” I was kidding, plus that was two years ago. I have matured a lot since then.)

All of my friends and pals in this thing said the kinds of things at the meeting that I love to hear. We need to have lots of historic preservation. Who's against historic preservation? The area around the park would look better with a vibrant retail scene. Sure.

But a guy from the peanut gallery went to the open microphone at the end of the meeting, said he had just moved here from California and had made his own survey of the neighborhoods around Fair Park. He said he thought before we could expect stuff like historic preservation and vibrant retail, we needed to make sure people in the area have enough to eat.

Oh, that.

Does Don Williams want to just move Big Tex to a new home or pull him down and burn him up for good?
Does Don Williams want to just move Big Tex to a new home or pull him down and burn him up for good?
Jared Boggess

In fact, of the speakers on stage at this event, the only one who spoke with any real authority on the issue of the surrounding sea of poverty was retired Trammell Crow Co. CEO Don Williams, the guy I thought I went there to disagree with.

Williams said, “The community surrounding Fair Park here has 50 percent actual unemployment. Its demographics and its conditions compare unfavorably with the lower 9th ward in New Orleans.”

Mark Lamster, architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News and moderator for this event, rode the obvious elephant into the room, the racial issue and fear of crime, and had it take its perfunctory bow. Vicki Meek, manager of the South Dallas Cultural Center, offered a smart rebuttal to white crime fears, as did Dallas business and civic leader Walt Humann, lead spokesperson for a Fair Park plan championed by Mayor Mike Rawlings.

But Williams, pushing a plan that conflicts on key points with the mayor's plan and is strongly opposed by the State Fair, was the only person on stage that night who spoke to the heart of the matter. No matter what anybody may perceive correctly or incorrectly about the area around Fair Park, the neighborhood is bitterly poor, and not much good is going to happen in that area until something gets done to relieve that bitter poverty.

“What this community needs is real jobs,” Williams said.

He also said something that had the clear ring of his having run what was then the nation's biggest real estate development and management company: What Fair Park also needs, he said, is a great, big, deep-pocketed anchor tenant to help create those jobs and help pay the freight on the rest of the park all year long.

Part of his concept, always greeted with great heebie-jeebies by my best friends as a threat to preservation, is to get some major institutional tenants into the little-used buildings at Fair Park to start generating rental income for the park.

To do that — and here is where the fair board gets its back up — Williams' plan would push the State Fair to an acreage that the State Fair already owns separately from Fair Park along the back border of Fair Park. In explaining that idea the other night, Williams argued that the best architecture at Fair Park is used wastefully and inappropriately by the fair.

“The State Fair can operate on a different footprint and different model,” he said. He pointed to the 650-foot long, 78-year-old automobile building, the exterior of which is adorned with statuary by French-born, early 20th century American sculptor Raoul Josset:

“Most state of the art automobile and truck shows in the country today are done outdoors under tents and misting. They don't have to take up these great Art Deco buildings for automobile and truck shows.”

Yes, some of the buildings at Fair Park have been used in certain ways for a long time, but does that make it wrong to think about using them in new ways?
Yes, some of the buildings at Fair Park have been used in certain ways for a long time, but does that make it wrong to think about using them in new ways?
Library of Congress

The audience applauded that line. Then Williams asked how George Dahl, chief architect for the 1936 Centennial Exposition at Fair Park, would feel about the way the State Fair uses some of its Art Deco masterpiece buildings: “How do you think he would feel about five of those buildings being used by the State Fair to sell mattresses, hot dogs, BarcaLoungers, nose rings and magnetic jewelry? Do you think that would be a compatible use for George Dahl?”

I'm not the guy to say whether any of those is a knock-out punch argument against the mayor's plan and for Williams' plan. But the response of State Fair board member Alan Walne seemed truculent and oddly off point.

Walne said that the buildings at Fair Park were built for the fair in the first place. And maybe so. But the fair doesn't own them. And then Walne threw a peculiar kind of left jab to the effect that Williams is secretly anti-State Fair. Walne told the audience that the first time Williams described his plan for the fair to Walne, “He said, 'The fair needs to leave. The fair's got to go.'”

Williams shot back, “I did not.”

“You did,” Walne said. “You said the fair doesn't need to be in the middle of the city. 'You can be out in the rural area somewhere else.'”

Humann, famous for peace-making in matters like these, stepped in and called off the fight between the two. You and I can't know for sure whether Don Williams ever told Alan Walne a year ago that the State Fair needed to leave Fair Park.

But we can know this much for sure: Williams isn't saying it now. He is saying emphatically that the fair should stay at Fair Park but on a reduced footprint that leaves the rest of the park open year-round for other productive uses.

So, wait. If Williams now agrees the fair should stay, why would Walne even bring up what Williams allegedly argued a year ago? Ah, here is where we get into the culture of the fair board. No matter what Williams is arguing now, Walne is accusing him of having made anti-State Fair utterances in the past, as if Williams should have been branded with letters on his forehead — ASF — and put in the stocks in front of the Old Red Courthouse.

That is so old Dallas. I love the State Fair. We all love the State Fair. But these guys make it sound so creepy, like some kind of ritualistic fraternal order.

Two other things happened at that meeting. First, a bunch of people from the neighborhoods around Fair Park got up and made quite credible arguments for ways that land freed up by the State Fair could be used for youth and training facilities, activities to build prosperity and create important bonds between Fair Park and the neighbors on the other side of its massive fences.

Secondly, when those people spoke, it was obvious from their remarks that Williams has close ties and great credibility with the neighborhoods around Fair Park.

The speakers obviously knew and respected Meeks of the South Dallas Cultural Center — one of their own — but only Williams, of all the white folks sitting on that stage, had any real juice with the neighborhoods. That is not insignificant.

By the way, I whined the other day about not being able to find a list of the board of directors of State Fair of Texas Inc. Karissa Condoianis, director of public relations for SFTI, kindly sent me a list, which I am posting below just so we'll have a good one online.

I absolutely do get all the arguments my friends make that somebody should just do something maaah-velous the rest of the year at Fair Park and then it will all be mahvelous. The most mahvelous carnies I know, the people who actually put on the State Fair itself, not their snobby board, tried to do just that two years ago with a $30 million investment in a summer amusement park that went bust after one season.

Probably this won't be easy. I'm not saying Williams should just be put in charge. But probably we should listen to him.


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