Fair Fight: It's Love and War as Dallas Struggles to Fix Fair Park

Big Tex, icon of the State Fair of Texas, reigns over Fair Park, for better and worse.
Big Tex, icon of the State Fair of Texas, reigns over Fair Park, for better and worse.
Source photo: Kevin Brown/State Fair of Texas®

No public space or entity in Dallas has thrilled more hearts or broken more hearts than Fair Park. It is the place where two origin myths, one white and sassy, one black and resolute, were born. No surprise, then, that its future is as bitterly disputed as its past.

The only thing not in dispute is its present. The 277-acre exposition park a mile east of downtown, where the State Fair of Texas takes place for three weeks every fall, once was home to the city's major cultural institutions. Now it's a semi-abandoned and decrepit "coal-town," even in the eyes of its most ardent admirers.

Whose fault was that? Whose job is it to fix it? Should it be fixed? What about just shutting it down, sending the State Fair packing and using the land for a year-round real park, a park-park instead of an entertainment venue for three weeks and a ghost town the rest of the year? And now we're into the fight.

Texans — almost all Texans — not only love the State Fair of Texas, they love it more and more. Last year the fair attracted more than 2.5 million visitors and sold $53 million in coupons, $11 million more than its previous record year. It just keeps getting bigger.

Park experts and people involved in the remaining private institutions at Fair Park agree that the presence of the State Fair, and especially the presence of its vast parking lots, exerts a certain ceiling on what can be done with Fair Park the rest of the year, but then everyone seems to agree the fair is the only reason anybody still cares about Fair Park anyway.

Mayor Mike Rawlings called a public hearing at Fair Park recently to discuss recommendations of a task force he convened last year to save Fair Park. The hearing was like the reading of a will in a room of disputatious heirs. More than 100 members of the public spoke, many of them succinctly stating the positions of all the important constituencies.

Former Dallas City Council member and civil rights icon Diane Ragsdale, once an angry lioness, now a mumbling matron, laid down her version of the basic challenge from the poor neighborhoods that surround Fair Park — basically, "one for you, one for me."

"If there are monies, millions of dollars for Fair Park included within the 2017 bond package, there also should be millions of dollars included in the 2017 bond package not only for Fair Park but for the revitalization of the neighborhoods, to address job creation, vacant lots, the need for housing and small businesses," she said.

In case anybody missed the point, she said it again: "Millions of dollars should be allocated for renovation of the buildings, and millions of dollars should be allocated for the neighborhoods."

Willie Mae Coleman, 81, president of the Bertrand Neighborhood Association and a revered leader in African-American Southern Dallas, gave a perfect portrayal of the inner conflict many older southern Dallas residents feel for the fair, which until the early 1950s admitted them only on one day in the three-week run:

"I came to Fair Park in 1939 the first time, and I couldn't come in." She said a relative brought her back a few years later. "They let me in on that one day, but that one day was real enjoyable. I love Fair Park."

But she said she felt that the millions of people from outside southern Dallas who flock to the fair each year leave little love behind. "When you come to the fair you drive away real fast. You shoot the dust in our face," Coleman said.

The centerpiece of the task force recommendations is an entire new governance structure for Fair Park under a so-called public-private partnership. The public would funnel tens of millions and eventually hundreds of millions of dollars into Fair Park, but the park would be run by a private foundation.

That idea was supported by Ragsdale, as long as the money gets divvied her way, but it drew sharp skepticism from others who have watched how semiprivate entities tend to operate in this city. After other speakers called for taking down the fence separating Fair Park from the neighborhoods but also commended the Dallas Zoo and the Dallas Arboretum as successful examples of public-private partnerships, Carol Bell-Walton came to the microphone and kind of asked them what they were smoking.

"I am a neighbor of the Arboretum," she said. "There is a fence there. The thing about the Arboretum's new fence, it has barbed wire on top."

Bell-Walton, active in the White Rock Lake task force, said the Arboretum always claims to be a part of the White Rock neighborhood but is too arrogant even to bother showing up at task force meetings.

Bell-Walton's comment drew other examples of public-private partnerships from the 18-year battle over building a highway along the Trinity River, where critics believe private entities have been used to block or dilute public influence.

"When I look at a public-private partnership, I have to wonder," she said. "Is it like the Trinity Trust, because they've pretty much taken the trust out of the Trinity."

Henry T. "Hank" Lawson, retired executive director of SouthFair Community Development Corp., Anna Hill, president of the Dolphin Heights Neighborhood Association, and Don Williams, founder of the Foundation for Community Empowerment, stand in one of the parking lots separate Fair Park from the surrounding neighborhood.
Henry T. "Hank" Lawson, retired executive director of SouthFair Community Development Corp., Anna Hill, president of the Dolphin Heights Neighborhood Association, and Don Williams, founder of the Foundation for Community Empowerment, stand in one of the parking lots separate Fair Park from the surrounding neighborhood.
Mark Graham

Maybe someone from Boston or Paris would have trouble understanding how something so corny as a state fair could be the object of such intense feeling here. For that, you have to know the history.

The white Fair Park origin myth — and it's a proud one — is about the moment when the real Dallas, the Dallas of today, came into being. According to that version, modern Dallas was born in 1936 when the Texas Centennial Exposition at Fair Park introduced the world to Dallas.

Instead of a bunch of weather-beaten farmers chasing fly-plagued cattle around in the desert, the image created by the 1936 exposition was of Janice Jarrett, the Centennial Sweetheart, as coolly gorgeous as any New York runway model, gaily waving a light-sea-green Stetson above her copper tresses and matching suede jacket, her China-white face flashing a sly smile that said, "Bet I can outride you, Cowpoke."

The black origin myth is tougher and deeper. It's the story of black parents and kids, stubborn heroes who outlasted and outsmarted the relentless humiliation and insult heaped on them at the State Fair of Texas, where they were allowed to attend only on what was called "Nigger Day" until the early 1950s, a day that was later dubbed "Negro Achievement Day," then finally abolished in 1953.

Here is the mystery of this corny, quasi-medieval festival of tents, fun-houses, halls of mirrors, cotton candy, hogs in pens, cowpokes and their future farmer children: Black people did not hate the fair. They loved the fair. They just didn't think white people owned it. Like Willie Mae Coleman, they wanted to come on every day, not one.

In a city that is 40 percent Latino, the black story and the white story are not the only two in town, but the black and white stories have hard interlaced branches that reach up together into today in their own peculiar contrapuntal pattern.

In order to beat out competing cities and bring the 1936 Centennial to Dallas, the leaders of the white business establishment formed the Dallas Citizens Council, a private body that continues to wield major influence on elections and public policy in the city today.

The black origin story is no less influential today. Entire generations of more assertive black leadership grew up out of neighborhood battles around Fair Park. Homeowners fought the city's attempts to use eminent domain to turn their communities into parking lots, really racial buffer zones for the fair.

Walt Humann is the mayor's pick to lead the entity that would run Fair Park if it is privatized.
Walt Humann is the mayor's pick to lead the entity that would run Fair Park if it is privatized.
Mark Graham

Somewhere in all of these warring views of the park and the fair, everybody agrees it's a mess now and can't be left to drift into even greater ruin. Even longtime civic leader Walt Humann, who normally never says a discouraging word, says the park's physical plant is in a condition he calls "abysmal." 

Two weeks ago at a table in the back of the eerily empty Old Mill Inn (the only year-round restaurant at Fair Park), Humann slowly and portentously withdraws a sheaf of photos and notes from a folder: "I have had a chance on numerous occasions to actually go into the bowels of this operation and see what's there," he says. He points to a photograph of the facade of the Hall of State, where January's meeting took place.

"I asked the maintenance department if I could go around with them rather than talking to the officials." One thing he explored, he explains, was the electrical power supply system — 14 points within the park where power is cabled underground and brought to 14 basement-level distribution centers.

He pulls out a picture of a room that looks like the mothballed set for an early Frankenstein movie. "This is one of the main ones. This is 1936 to 1955 electrical equipment. This carries 482 volts, dual phase. You go down a ladder into this vault."

He points to some kind if murkiness all over the floor of the room. "This is a foot of water. So they have to pump the water out and make sure the floor is dry. If it's wet or moist, with the 482 volts you're going to be fried in a nanosecond."

All of this decay and neglect at Fair Park is the dark side of one of Dallas' main bragging points today, the lavish and glitzy new Arts District downtown. The Arts District, to which most of the city's major cultural institutions have decamped over the last 10 years, is the city's architectural trophy wife. Fair Park is "the first one," left behind now with barely a nickel in alimony.

Humann's plan (the mayor's plan, as recommended by the task force) turns on two key principles. One is a physical redesign of the park, usually summed up as "putting the park in the park." The idea is to make Fair Park more porous, inviting and connected to the community. The second principle is that public-private thing, a new form of governance clearly designed, though no one will say it out loud, to get the park out from under the City Council.

Five major physical changes are recommended by the task force. First is opening the "front door" of the park with some kind of architectural gesture that will say "Come on in," instead of "Where's your ticket?" The other changes are tying the park into the city's system of hike and bike trails; lowering Interstate 30 north of the park and creating a deck park over it to bond Fair Park to Deep Ellum and downtown; pulling in fences and plowing up parking lots to create a community park outside the fair's "pay-wall" fence; and building parking structures so more land inside Fair Park can be made green.

All of those ideas are Band-Aids, according to J. McDonald Williams. None goes to root causes. Williams was president and CEO of Dallas-based Trammell Crow Co. in the early 1990s after Forbes magazine called it the largest international real estate developer in the world.

Since he retired in 2006, he has devoted himself exclusively to nonprofit activity as founder of the Foundation for Community Empowerment, or FCE as it prefers to be known. The foundation describes its mission as community building, home-building, faith-based efforts including after-school programs, improved high school graduation rates and social research in the poor and minority neighborhoods of southern Dallas.

As a rich white guy trying to do something about poverty in southern Dallas, Williams has often served as the scold who's too big for white Dallas to disinvite. His explanation for the condition of Fair Park and the neighborhoods around it is typically blunt.

"Dallas has made a policy decision to suppress that neighborhood and that opportunity," he says.

Seated at a long conference table in a North Dallas law firm, he asks, "What are your favorite parks in the world? New York's Central Park? Stanley Park in Vancouver? Balboa Park in San Diego? Millennium Park in Chicago? Bois de Boulogne in Paris?"

His point is that all of those parks create what developers call a park premium. "They radiate value," he says, "and they change the character of the city."

Williams commissioned a study to see what the premium is around Fair Park. The study showed Fair Park has the opposite effect. Property is worth less the closer it is to the park.

Williams is not pessimistic about the core of Dallas. He thinks "a great urban core in Dallas" is already "trying to happen," pushed by market forces.

"We should have the greatest urban core in inland America," he says. But the burgeoning core of the city must burgeon for everyone, not just for rich white people, or it will not burgeon for long. The city needs to make sure that happens by making the right decisions about public infrastructure, Williams believes.

"A piece of that needs to be an extraordinary destination park," he says. "We don't have a great park in Dallas at the moment."

Williams and Humann agree on many points. They both see the need for a new structure of governance. They agree on the need for a major infusion of capital to repair the park. But they disagree about the State Fair, and that's everything.

Williams believes the fair must move or give up ground. Last year while the mayor's appointed task force was devising its own plan for revitalizing Fair Park — with precious little public input — Williams decided to create some input of his own. He hired the design and planning firm of Antonio DiMambro in Boston to come up with a plan for making Fair Park a great park.

The first plan DiMambro came up with leaped tooth and claw into the biggest issue at Fair Park — the State Fair of Texas. The plan didn't exile the fair to Oklahoma, exactly, but it might as well have, judging by the extremely hostile reaction it elicited from defenders of the fair.

Breaking down barriers between Fair Park and its neighbors is key to turning it into an asset for South Dallas, instead of a drain.EXPAND
Breaking down barriers between Fair Park and its neighbors is key to turning it into an asset for South Dallas, instead of a drain.
Kathy Tran

DiMambro and Williams wanted to push the fair out of the center of Fair Park to a smaller acreage at the back of the park on land owned by the fair, not the city. The idea was to free the main body of the park for green space but also convert many of the revered Art Deco buildings in the core of the park to rental properties, in the hope that some solid institutional tenant like a community college would provide rental income that would help fund the park on an ongoing basis.

The rumor mill — probably with a major assist from people who just don't like Williams or his ideas — immediately began to churn out versions of a sneak attack. Fair Park was under siege, the rumors warned direly. This greedy, self-seeking guy who used to be head of Trammell Crow was going to turn the whole place into hipster condos and countless coffee shops. Williams says since retiring he has never engaged in a nickel's worth of for-profit endeavor and doesn't intend to.

What he really has in mind, he says, is a marriage of relatively soft-treading institutional use, probably educational, with the park's rare buildings, which are deemed by some authorities to be the largest intact collection of Art Deco exhibition halls anywhere in the world.

"Really good uses preserve the important historical and preservationist character of the buildings," he says, "and you fill them with people year-round — people who can afford to fix them up and pay the rent, keep them maintained.

"I think that's how you deal with these buildings, a user who can afford to fix them up and pay rent, but it's a compatible use. This is not turning it over for private real estate development. We don't need apartments out there or whatever."

That part of Williams' spiel may come treading on little cat feet, but there is a heavier boot in some of his longer rhetoric for Fair Park. Nothing will ever be fair about Fair Park, he insists, and Fair Park will never be a real park until it throws open its gates and connects with the community around it.

Williams has backed off the land-use map in the first draft of the DiMambro plan and says he thinks he and the community leaders he supports might be able to negotiate some other arrangement with the fair, perhaps less an out-and-out relocation than a constriction of the pay-wall fence closer in around the heart of the fair.

But one way or another, he believes some significant amount of building space inside Fair Park must be opened up for enterprises, perhaps both public and private, that will foster employment and opportunity in surrounding neighborhoods. The need outside the fence is too great for the party inside the fence to continue unaffected and uninvolved.

Onstage as an invited panelist at another public meeting at Fair Park, Williams told a huge and animated crowd, "The community surrounding Fair Park has 50 percent actual unemployment. Its demographics and its condition compare unfavorably to the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans.

"How do you get jobs into this community?" he asks. "If you really revitalize the park, that will radiate value to the surrounding neighborhoods so that there can be tremendous new housing, there can be business growth, there can be educational facility growth.

"All of these things, as well as what happens in the park if it is revitalized, generate real jobs, year-round jobs, not seasonal jobs parking cars in a yard during the fair. That's what this community needs — is real jobs. Good jobs beget more jobs."

The concept of permanent tenants in the historic structures at Fair Park sends shivers down the spines of the city's preservation advocates. Virginia  McAlester, author of the nationally renowned book A Field Guide to American Houses and a longtime advocate for architectural preservation in Dallas, believes that the unique nature of Fair Park argues against any heavy-handed rearrangement or alteration of the historic buildings in the park. "There truly is nothing else like it in the world," she says. 

At the meeting at the Hall of State, former Dallas City Council member, businessman and State Fair board member Alan Walne made a related argument — that the State Fair built those buildings in 1936 and they are integral to the tradition of the fair.

Given the near-sacred reverence of the city's old guard for the fair, it is not surprising they chose someone like Mitchell Glieber to be its president and CEO when the former CEO, Errol McKoy, retired two years ago. The son of seven-time Texas sportscaster of the year Frank Glieber, Mitchell Glieber was the only SMU scholarship football player who remained loyal to the team and stayed at SMU even after the NCAA imposed its most severe sanction, the "death penalty," in 1987. (The NCAA killed football at SMU for a year as punishment for an egregious recruitment scandal that tainted top SMU alumni up to and including then Governor Bill Clements.)

But Glieber also worked his way up. He was made president and CEO of the fair only after working there for 15 years. As CEO he strikes a balanced position, not a hard line in the sand, over the footprint issue and the fair's obligation, if any, to help surrounding neighborhoods develop.

"We all know that Fair Park can be better," he says, seated at a conference table in the fair's modest headquarters building at Fair Park. "We know that. We understand that there may be some sacrifices that have to be made on the part of the State Fair to make Fair Park better."

But he says the biggest challenge, when people start talking about reducing the fair's footprint, is the fair's extraordinary success over the last two years. In 2014 the fair saw record attendance and record gross coupon sales of $42 million. But 2015 smashed those records when coupon sales hit $53 million, the highest gross in the fair's 129-year history.

"There were days out here when it was difficult to get around," Glieber says. "When you start talking about reducing the footprint, that's something that would be in direct conflict with exactly what we're trying to accomplish here."

Baranda Fermin is a former candidate for Dallas City Council who lives in the South Boulevard-Park Row neighborhood near Fair Park. She says something must be done soon to improve the park before the neighborhoods around it die.EXPAND
Baranda Fermin is a former candidate for Dallas City Council who lives in the South Boulevard-Park Row neighborhood near Fair Park. She says something must be done soon to improve the park before the neighborhoods around it die.
Mark Graham

If all of this sounds like a formula for endless conflict, a distinct spirit of compromise also can be heard on almost every side of the debate. Baranda Fermin, an unsuccessful candidate for the District 7 Dallas City Council seat in 2015, is a young new mother with a doctorate in sociology who lives in the South Boulevard-Park Row neighborhood near the fair. She just wants movement.

A couple weeks ago at Mokah Coffee Bar on Malcolm X Boulevard in Deep Ellum, she offered some examples of less-than-revolutionary, modest, organic things the Fair and the city could do to reinforce the efforts of homeowners fighting to bring back the neighborhoods around the fair.

"I know for sure the first thing and the easiest thing to do is for more of the kids from the neighborhood right around here and the schools around here to be able to access the programs that go on at the State Fair and to have those programs extended."

She's talking about art and textile classes, even farming — anything to give children from the neighborhoods a real sense that they belong to the fair and the fair belongs to them. That kind of extra added value, something that makes living near the fair special, is also important to the adults in the area. She thinks her neighborhood is at a tipping point, and tipping points can be good or bad, depending.

"We can debate for a while about the plans for Fair Park," Fermin says, "but I'd like us for to begin to do something. I believe we have about an 18- to 24-month window to do something with Fair Park before everything dies, before everything around here just sort of shrivels up and there's absolutely no economic activity and the vultures start circling."

She wants to see the fair and Fair Park do something — almost anything — that would allow young parents like herself to feel better about what they're trying to do: Things may be tough sometimes in their neighborhood, but living near the fair is kind of cool because of the special advantages the fair makes available for their children. It doesn't have to be huge, she says.

"I just don't want people to give up."

Humann, the mayor's pick to head the entity that would run Fair Park if the park is privatized, has far from a closed heart on community involvement issues. He has deep experience with the neighborhoods around Fair Park. Humann has been a leader in his Highland Park church's now quarter-century-old rejuvenation campaign in the Jubilee neighborhood on Fair Park's northern border.

Asked what the secret is to being a senior white man from Highland Park involved in poor black neighborhoods in South Dallas, he leans in close and whispers, "Personal relationships."

No one really argues with two basic tenets of Williams' view: First, that Fair Park needs to be physically arrayed in some better way if it is to become even viable economically, to say nothing of ever becoming self-sustaining. And secondly, Fair Park cannot prosper as an island of fun in a sea of misery.

Humann's vision of the way forward is more protective of the State Fair than Williams' but not absolutely protective. He is confident that patience and negotiation can create a new Fair Park that meets everyone's needs and still stays faithful to the deep-rooted history of the place.

Both of the State Fair origin myths are about the same thing — people taking a stand, asserting their dignity, telling the world, "Here I stand. Respect me." Is it too unbelievable that a place so carnie as a State Fair midway might be where two great myths of the city finally become one?

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