Flying Monkeys Shield State Fair Contract Just When it Should Be Set on Fire

The deal revealed last week by Park and Recreation Department staffers would protect the State Fair of Texas forever from any new manager selected to run Fair Park.
The deal revealed last week by Park and Recreation Department staffers would protect the State Fair of Texas forever from any new manager selected to run Fair Park. Jim Schutze
The pirates who run the State Fair of Texas and the army of flying monkey lackeys otherwise known as the Dallas Park and Recreation Department are trying to bury all the State Fair’s loot for good before the Dallas City Council can send anybody in to police up Fair Park.

Sorry. I don’t have time to argue with you about the flying monkeys thing. And, no, I don’t mean the nice park department people who run your neighborhood swimming pool (you still have a neighborhood swimming pool??!!).

I am talking about the flying monkey lackeys at the top of the park department and their helpers on the city attorney's staff who will scheme and abase themselves in every way imaginable to curry favor with the ancient rich troglodytes who own the State Fair of Texas. Let’s just get to the facts, OK?

At the end of last week, the park department staff blindsided their own board of directors — normally not a problem because most of them are deaf, dumb and blind anyway — with a so-called “memorandum of understanding” or MOU that they have been cooking up with the State Fair for months, out of sight from their own board. And, as I say, for them to get out of the sight of the park board all they have to do anyway is put hands in front of their faces and whisper.

Here’s the first item: The fair has agreed to start paying the park department the ten million bucks a year in maintenance money it was supposed to pay every year for the last 14 years but didn’t. You might wonder, “What about the other $140 million?” Don’t wonder, please. That’s not in the memo.

This is just about “going forward.” As in, “Let’s go forward.” You say that to your landlord all the time, right, when he asks about back rent? Let’s just go forward. And what does he or she tell you?

But you see, in this case, the State Fair’s case, the landlord is a flying monkey. It’s different. The fair lifts its scepter and says, “Go forward,” and suddenly the sky is dark with monkeys.

And another thing: We say, "pay." Let’s talk about that. You might think the word "pay" means turn over. Write a check. As in, “Here’s your money.” Or, “Where’s my money?” But, no. Oh, no. Not at all. This is not that kind of pay.

Under the MOU shown to the board last week, the State Fair will pay its ten million a year into a special fund that it will control, dedicated to capital improvements and major maintenance. Then it will tell the park department what that money can be spent on.


A person might wonder, what’s wrong with the old-fashioned kind of pay? As in, just pay it. Write the check. Turn it over. It’s not your money anymore. What do you mean, you’re going to tell your landlord what she can spend it on? What planet are you on? Oh, we forgot. Not this planet. You are on Planet State Fair of Texas, and you wave the scepter. Cool for you.

But here is the real agenda. You will remember that last year the mayor of Dallas, Mike Rawlings, tried to give Fair Park away to his friend, retired Hunt Oil executive Walt Humann. Humann said he would run it and get it fixed up.

Many people objected, because Fair Park is a major public asset in the center of the city. Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston, a lawyer, went to the former city attorney and asked if it was legal for the mayor to give a 277-acre park to his friend without a public bidding process. The former city attorney gave Kingston what was then the regular City Hall line. Sure. Probably. We think so. Why?

But that city attorney retired soon after, and a new one, Larry Casto, came in. First little chance he got, Kingston asked Casto the Fair Park question again. Casto, because he hadn’t been flying monkeyed yet, gave the response any lawyer outside of City Hall would give: What? Are you totally crazy? Of course there had to be a bidding process. Of course you can’t just give away a 277-acre park to your friend. You can’t give away a one-acre park to your friend. Your friend needs to step away from the park.

So now we have a public bidding process going — we hope — in which a couple of entities in addition to the mayor’s friend have expressed an interest in taking over and running Fair Park. All of that is dragging along somewhere.

The park department expressed it enthusiasm by saying it needed to go through a process to select a firm that would go through a process to select a firm that would go through a process to select the firms that would go through a process to see which firms would be allowed to go through the process of bidding. If this were a courtship, the only possible outcome would be the monastery. But there you have it. There’s a process. It’s going along.

In the meantime, the single biggest factor any bidder must take into account is managing the relationship with Fair Park’s uber-tenant, the State Fair of Texas. Under the existing arrangement, the fair has the right to take over almost the entire park for a period of months every year before and after the three-week fair.

The fair claims to take in about $55 million a year — about $4 million over expenses — which is impressive, until you start figuring opportunity cost. Even if you believe the fair’s bookkeeping, which the city auditor says you shouldn’t, that’s $4 million a year earned in a way that pretty much eliminates most other year-round revenue sources.

If the State Fair’s existing contract is sacrosanct and can’t be budged, then the bidders thinking about coming in to run Fair Park in the future are fenced into a pretty slim bandwidth of operation. But why, if we now see that the fair should have been paying $10 million a year toward maintenance but was not, should the contract be sacrosanct? Why isn’t it in default?

In fact, a consistent theme from critics of the status quo at Fair Park has been that the State Fair contract should be wadded up and set on fire in front of the Hall of State. A serious landlord who wasn’t a flying monkey would wag his finger at the fair and say, “You, of all people, should never allow the word 'contract' to leave your lips. Or the word 'pay.'”

The MOU unveiled last week — did I mention the staff had forgotten to keep the board posted until it was done? — is an attempt to take what is probably the smaller portion of what the fair should have been paying all along and use that money to set up a financial stockade against anybody new coming in to run Fair Park.

The creation of an improvements fund run by the fair would give the fair serious leverage over any new manager. It would give the fair control over the very assets that the manager is responsible for managing.

Another aspect of the MOU that makes no business sense at all is a provision that would allow the fair to increase its reserve fund every time its expense go up. That would reduce so-called profit and the amount the fair is obligated to pay toward maintenance.

So if you’re the fair, that’s easy. Get those expenses up every little chance you get, because then you can keep more money. It’s a financial incentive to run up your expenses.
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Everybody loves the State Fair. But is it so sacred it can't be asked to change at all?
Jim Schutze
But none of that is the true damage. The real harm here to the future of Fair Park would be entering in some cocktail-napkin agreement cobbled up with the monkeys that would have the effect of locking in the existing contract. That is the opposite of what a true steward of the asset would be doing.

The right thing is to tell the fair they don’t have a contract. They blew that long ago. Now they need to sit down with whatever party winds up taking over Fair Park and negotiate a whole new deal. That new deal, hopefully, will contemplate an entire new vision for the park, a new philosophy, and it may well require the fair to change its act in some ways.

This thing the flying monkeys came up with last week is the opposite. It’s a transparent attempt to help the fair barricade itself against change. I know we should all be embarrassed for the park department, but I’m still too busy being appalled.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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