Oh, thank goodness. It looks like we won’t have to take Fair Park, our neglected and benighted 277-acre exposition park at the center of our city, and marry her off to the Park Cities after all. As The Dallas Morning News reported last week, national corporate interests, some with international experience managing public attractions and parks, have formed an as yet unnamed consortium to join a small circle of entities interested in managing Fair Park as a semi-private entity.
And here we had been told she was a hag-worn charity case only to be taken off our hands if we agreed to pay a handsome dowry to her minders. The strange, even bizarre process by which the fate of Fair Park is being decided has already taught us an important lesson: We should take everything the city’s old leadership tells us with a major dose of salt, then wait and do nothing until the next shoe falls.
This process also teaches us that we are perpetually hamstrung in Dallas by the old leadership’s cringing fear and loathing of any and all outside influence. Last year when Mayor Mike Rawlings launched an effort to resuscitate Fair Park, he immediately proposed turning it over to a group affiliated with and springing from the city’s old guard – in other words, the private Dallas Citizens Council, the State Fair of Texas and a bunch of people who live in the elite enclave communities we call collectively the “Park Cities” (Highland Park and University Park).
Their big idea? First of all, before they would even talk about raising money for the park themselves they wanted an across-the-board guaranteed dowry from the taxpayers of $20 million a year from now into perpetuity.
No surprise there. That has always been their big idea: “Give us a lot of money, and we will give you a little money back.” Somehow that’s charity in Dallas. If the Citizens Council were Dickens, Tiny Tim would still be making installment payments to Scrooge for Christmas dinner. Give them a fat pot of tax money to start, and they might agree to come in and make some more money for themselves, as if doing anything inside the city limits, even making money here, is doing the city a favor.
The mayor almost succeeded in cramming his plan down the City Council’s throat, turning the park over to the insider group without so much as a public bidding process, when City Council member Philip Kingston and others persuaded City Attorney Larry Casto that doing it that way would be illegal.
When Casto agreed and a public process was put in place, the first fruit was an expression of interest from developer Monte Anderson, one of the city’s most successful practitioners of organic development — that is, starting small and allowing an area to piece together its own destiny one doorway at a time. The dramatic difference between Anderson’s plan and the mayor’s plan was that Anderson’s ideas were all pay-as-you-go — make a profit as you go or don’t go — instead of the Citizens Council version of tax subsidy socialism.
Nobody knows yet what this new international group will unveil as their scheme for the park — probably lots of razzle, lots of dazzle — but they, too, must be looking at Fair Park as something better than a charity case.
“Honestly,” Kingston said to me Tuesday, “it’s playing out in almost a storybook fashion, is it not? You had the insiders who were going to steal it. But you open it up, and what do you get? You have flash and dazzle, but we also have the small-growth guys, the incremental neighborhood-builder guys, the guys who have a track record of turning worthless property into some of the hottest places in town.
“It’s this amazing contrast. We have an entire spectrum. We have a strong contender from the hyper-local, be-who-you-are, build-it-from-within guys, and we’ve got the rock stars from out of town.”
He added, “And then we’ve got the cronies of the old school.”
The news of the new interested parties is also an enormous vindication for the rump caucus on the Dallas Park and Recreation Board who held out for a more open and accountable process while a majority of the board seemed like they were ready to turn the whole park over to the Dallas Country Club for use as storage. Board members Becky Rader and Paul Sims both told me opening up the process was the right thing to do in principle no matter who showed up to bid.
Rader had written at the end of last year to City Attorney Casto calling his attention to the stunning presumptuousness of the process by which the mayor proposed to turn over management of Fair Park to his friend, retired oil executive Walt Humann:
“Immediately after Mr. Humann's selection announcement in Oct-Nov 2015 and his presentation to the City Council of what he planned to do,” Rader wrote, “Mr. Humann began forming a transition team of city staff and lawyers beginning on Dec. 18, 2015, with an email subject line of, ‘Transition Team Members, Responsibilities, Schedule and Action Items.’”
See how that was supposed to work? Mayor says somebody needs to take over Fair Park. Mayor says somebody is Walt Humann. Walt Humann takes over Fair Park.
Forget due process. Forget fairness, the constitution, the proper disposition of public property. On an issue of this magnitude — the stewardship of a major public asset and an opportunity to bring about real change in the city – how could we even have thought of just handing it to some guy because the mayor told us to? It was crazy.
For one thing, we should want to seek and find new ideas, things people here may not have thought about already. Park board member Paul Sims, who was one of those who held out for a fair and open process, said to me Tuesday: “We have such an ingrained bias that people from Dallas might have a limited vision as to what Fair Park can be. I am very glad that the net was cast wide enough for somebody to come in with a different vision.”
In the early public meetings on a plan for Fair Park, there was an odor in the air so thick you could have cut it with a knife. It was an attitude of impatience, sometimes openly infused with anger, when anybody said anything in conflict with the plan already worked out by the mayor, his anointed messenger in Humann and the Citizens Council/State Fair crowd. It was almost as if the Mighty Oz had spoken, so no words were left to be said.
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The problem with that attitude is not so much that the Mighty Oz may be acting too mighty, which he may be. It’s more that Oz — by whom I mean all of them, the whole cabal, the usual suspects speaking as one — may not be smart enough.
How in the world, why in the world, would anyone imagine that a bunch of old dudes from Highland Park and University Park would know how to run a major urban attraction? Would we think that because the Park Cities area has such a great reputation as a fun place?
I’m afraid to drive through it. They give people traffic tickets for not being rich. Their idea of a really fun place is Highland Park Village. Highland Park Village always makes me feel like I’m about to get demerits. I know that some people love the Park Cities, but I wonder if even they would go to an amusement park called “Six Flags Over the Park Cities?”
Not me. If I want to have fun, I’m going to keep driving and look for six flags over something else. And that’s what I feel we’re getting finally with this new more open process – six flags over something else, some new ideas, thinking outside the bubble. Kind of exciting, eh?