Fair Park Bidding Process Is One Big Screwed-Up Cat Fight From the Get-Go

The State Fair of Texas is so well connected and powerful in Dallas it's almost its own political party.EXPAND
The State Fair of Texas is so well connected and powerful in Dallas it's almost its own political party.
Jim Schutze

The whole question about Fair Park, our 277-acre albatross that everybody thinks should be turned over to a private entity, is whose entity. Seriously down-at-the-heels but still shabbily beautiful in its own way, this vast “exposition park” in South Dallas is going to become somebody’s baby. Please note quotation marks.

Because what the hell is an “exposition park” anyway? And that’s the problem. Home to the hugely successful, wonderfully tatty State Fair of Texas every fall for three weeks, Fair Park the rest of the year is sort of a Navy spouse — all alone, not much to do but watch old movies and drink gin. And looks it.

The dilemma has always been finding something for Fair Park to be the rest of the year that won’t get in the way of the fair. The State Fair of Texas, meanwhile, is so powerfully connected in Dallas that it’s almost its own local political party — The State Fair Party. The State Fair Party has called on and exploited its connections to control the hand-off process for Fair Park, for reasons that should be obvious.

Opposed to the State Fair Party is a loose constellation of interests that can’t really be called the Anti-State Fair Party, because who could really be against the state fair? But we could reasonably call them the Not-the-State-Fair Party.

They think the state fair people might have to be nudged over to some smaller footprint within Fair Park instead of occupying the whole thing once a year, so that portions of the park can be rented out or utilized to produce ongoing income for repair, maintenance and operations.

The footprint is a huge deal. The State Fair Party says absolutely no way. They have always had more or less full run of the park during the run of the fair, and they say adamantly they cannot operate with a foot less that the full footprint.

So guess what all of this does to the bidding process for deciding who should take over Fair Park? Even under normal circumstances, Dallas City Hall is a place where the buck never stops anywhere and the messes just get messier. The intense social, business and political pressures whirling around Fair Park have made the process even more unbelievably convoluted and inscrutable than usual.

Initially, Mayor Mike Rawlings said the bidding process for a private entity to take over Fair Park should be one step. Give it to Walt Humann.

Humann, a retired oil executive, is firmly of the State Fair Party. So that was Step One in the rigorous bidding process. For the sake of brevity, we will refer hereafter to that portion of the process as Give It To Walt.

Late last year, Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston asked the city attorney if it was legal to just give Fair Park to Walt Humann. The sitting city attorney said sure. Then he retired. The replacement city attorney said something like, “No, are you kidding?” We will call that step in the rigorous process No Are You Kidding.

The city attorney said there had to be some kind of fair and open bidding process. Disappointed, the State Fair Party said if there was going to be a real bidding process, not just anybody should be allowed to bid, because what if bad people bid? The city then initiated something called a “request for qualifications” where people who wanted to bid had to fill out a questionnaire first about who they were. We will call that part of the process the OK-But-Nobody-We-Don’t-Like stage.

An important thing to keep track of here, if you don’t mind, is that you and I have not gotten to the open and fair bidding part yet. No. You and I are still back on the OK-But-Nobody-We-Don’t-Like step, where they decide who can bid.

In response to the request for qualifications, Humann sent in his, of course, and then two additional potential bidders also asked to be considered. One was Monte Anderson, a respected new urbanist developer with a track record of successful projects in Dallas. The other was a group that included real estate mega-firm Trammell Crow, a Comcast-related company that manages fairgrounds and sports venues all over the nation and a developer who was involved in the city’s very successful Klyde Warren Park.

At this point somebody — it’s not clear who — suggested an additional stage. Apparently it wasn’t fair for people from all over the country with all kinds of money to come in and just propose all kinds of stuff.

What if they proposed bad stuff? So it was decided that the city needed to make sure people wouldn’t propose bad stuff. The city proposed that there should be an additional step in the process wherein bidders would be told exactly what they could bid on doing.

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I guess it makes sense. Maybe. I would think by the time you had ruled on who was even allowed to make a proposal you could count on them not making joke proposals like a nudist camp or something. But let’s just call it an additional precaution. We’ll call this step Only What We Say.

Now here is where things get complicated. Someone at City Hall – I can’t figure out if it was the State Fair Party, the Not-the-State-Fair Party, or, I don’t know, the Water Department? — raised the question of who gets to do the Only-What-We-Say part. In other words, who draws up the proposal that proposers are allowed to propose upon? And, look, if this is hard to follow, don’t feel bad, because I’m still stuck back on Only What We Say.

What if the Only-What-We-Say step had been imposed on Lin-Manuel Miranda, the guy who wrote the musical, Hamilton? No turning white guys into black guys. Or the Wright brothers. No flying. But there we have it. We agreed, apparently, to the Only-What-We-Say step, and then somebody at City Hall wanted to know what we will say.

Well, I guess that’s important, too. If we’re going to say something, what’s it going to be? I think we should call that step, “Say What?”

All right, I am so sorry, this is not my fault, but if we’re going to do a thorough review of the steps in the rigorous Fair Park bidding process we have to deal with some additional questions raised by somebody at City Hall about who should get to say what we’re going to say. In fact the city has now opened up a competitive request for qualifications from companies that want to get paid to write what it is that we want to say.

Can the same venue that houses the state fair every year be turned into anything else for the rest of the year?EXPAND
Can the same venue that houses the state fair every year be turned into anything else for the rest of the year?
Jim Schutze

I’m not at all sure what to call this one. The best I can come up with is “Say Who Say What?” I don’t even know why we have to pay somebody to say what we want to say, let alone why we need a bidding process to decide who should tell us what we want to say. I am, frankly, totally lost.

But maybe a quick review will help. The city’s rigorous process for deciding who should take over Fair Park amounts to: 1) Walt, Right?; 2) No, Are You Kidding?; 3) OK, But Nobody We Don’t Like; 4) Only What We Say; 5) Say What?; 6) Say Who Say What?

I’ve thought pretty hard about this. Here is the best I have been able to figure out. Something tells me this is not really a straightforward and transparent bidding process. It feels to me more like a cat-fight before we even decide what we want to do. What do I base that on?

Red Flag Number one: trying to give it to Walt Humann without any bidding process at all. That should have told us right there that the fix was in and the State Fair Party was the fixer. Think about it this way: If we hadn’t had Step One (Give It To Walt Right), we wouldn’t even have needed Step Two (No Are You Kidding).

If the two sides — the State Fair Party and maybe the Not-the-Fair Party as well — had not already been at each other’s throats, I don’t see why we would have needed OK But Nobody We Don’t Like, Only What We Say, Say What or Say Who Say What. In fact I think every one of these steps could reasonably be interpreted as red flags indicating bad faith on all sides, top and bottom, in toto a prescription for acrimony, stalemate and ultimate failure, otherwise known as a typical Dallas City Hall deal.

What’s another way it might have been done? How about saying, “Hey, anybody got any ideas what we could do with Fair Park?" You know – open, free-form, no holds barred. Then if someone does show up with an idea but he’s got a patch over one eye and a parrot on his shoulder and all he can say is aaargh, we figure, “Maybe not you, Captain.” I think we could work that out.

I was kidding above when I mentioned a nudist camp, but, come to think of it, how would it hurt us to hear every possible idea anybody could think of? Why, when approaching something this important, would we spend all of our time closing doors and latching windows? Why not open all the doors and all the windows, invite everybody and his uncle in and then sort them all out after they show up?

Why aren’t the ideas first? If a pirate shows up with a great idea, can’t we send the pirate packing but keep his idea in mind? Why wouldn’t we look at all the ideas first and decide on the people later?

When I look at the whole process as it stands, it all just goes straight back to Step One. Walt. And then, when that didn’t work, the endless cat-fight. So what else is new?


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