Rumors That the Plan for a Privated Fair Park Is in Trouble Spark New Proposals

"The moral arc of history is long, but it bends toward Philip." Philip Kingston, 2016.
"The moral arc of history is long, but it bends toward Philip." Philip Kingston, 2016.
Mark Graham

They could all turn out to be wrong in the end, of course, or maybe just not right enough, but close observers around town are beginning to place bets on strong rumors that the Walt Humann Fair Park deal will fall apart soon. The ostensible reason – the one for public consumption — would be that a new adverse city attorney opinion says it wasn’t done right.

The real reason – the truth — would be that it wasn’t done right. A new legal opinion – and nobody will tell me for sure there is such a thing – might be sort of an off-ramp to let the mayor out of a bad situation with Humann.

The more people look at it, the more the Humann plan to turn over a 277-acre city property to a self-created and self-appointed board without any competitive proposal process looks like a good-old-geezer deal. The big entrepreneurial idea – the genius insight at the center – is to fix up the buildings. The question then would be: And?

Radio silence.

OK, here’s the big picture. Fair Park is what park experts call an “exposition park,” created largely in the 1930s to house the Texas Centennial Exposition. It is still home to the world’s largest collection of run-down art deco 1930s exposition buildings, and that’s supposed to be a good thing.

Since the 1930s Fair Park has been home to the State Fair of Texas and an array of major cultural institutions like the symphony and the art museum and so on. Since the 1960s, the park has been surrounded by poor and modest black neighborhoods. Beginning in the late 1970s, rich white people began snaking and finagling all of the cultural institutions out of Fair Park and into the new arts district on the north side of downtown closer to where rich white people live.

That left the State Fair of Texas, a private socially prestigious institution in its own right, with free rein over Fair Park, even though the park itself continues to belong to the city. But keeping Fair Park available for the annual three-week fair means the park, with many of the major cultural institutions long gone, sits idle much of the year.

Because of the very generous and permissive contract the city grants the fair, the fair’s considerable annual profits have done little or nothing to halt the accelerating decay of the old art deco buildings. So most of the year Fair Park is an unused mess.

Beginning a few years ago, more and more observers and critics in the city began saying it was stupid to allow an asset that big to sit idle. Something needed to be done with it.

But almost anything and everything that anybody proposed to change Fair Park involved some kind of push-back against or limitation of the fair. Real estate executive J. McDonald Williams, since his retirement a major philanthropist and activist in the city’s minority sector, has suggested repeatedly the city should declare that the fair is in breach of its contract and force the fair to the bargaining table to hammer out a better deal for the park.

From the fair’s perspective, no new deal could be better than what the fair already has – virtual ownership of 277 acres without any obligation to pay property tax or maintain the basic plant. So understandably, the fair has not been exactly Pollyanna about some of the redo talk, especially the kind Williams hands out for free.

In what looks now more and more like it was an attempt to head off other proposals, Mayor Mike Rawlings personally appointed or anointed retired oil executive Walt Humann to come up with a Fair Park plan. Humann did. His plan is to leave the State Fair entirely alone – not touch its deal – and tax the citizens of Dallas hundreds of millions of dollars to fix up the buildings.

I call Humann’s plan a good-old-geezer deal because he and the people on the State Fair board of directors are good old geezers. They represent the aging social infrastructure of yesteryear – the way things used to be – and maybe the best way they represent that tradition is in their belief that matters like these are theirs alone to settle, behind closed doors by the powers that be, perhaps more accurately described now as the powers that were.

Humann is the only person the mayor asked to take over Fair Park. Humann devised and appointed his own board and gave it the power to reappoint itself in perpetuity without outside influence. And then he said his group needed $20 million a year in operating subsidy from the city until the Chinese take over the country, not to mention hundreds of millions in city bond money to fix the dirty decos.

Some weeks ago, Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston declared that the Rawlings/Humann deal was a violation of state law. Kingston said an inside giveaway like this would be legal under state law only if control of the park were being awarded to a longstanding friends group with a well-established track record of deep support.

Acting city attorney Chris Bowers provided Rawlings with a legal opinion saying Humann qualified for his no-bid deal under those terms because he had done a lot of pro bono work preparing his Fair Park take-over plan. The rumor I have been hearing is that the new city attorney, Larry Casto, has issued a rewrite saying Humann’s stuff doesn’t qualify and the park needs to be put out for a competitive “request for proposals.”

Don Williams, speaking to the Park Board.
Don Williams, speaking to the Park Board.

I asked Casto, Bowers and mayoral spokesman Scott Goldstein about the do-over rumor yesterday. Casto and Bowers did not respond. Goldstein said, “There has been no change in the City Attorney’s Office opinion from what was publicly stated at the Fair Park briefing meeting last month.”

I also asked Kingston. He had a different opinion about the rumor: “I think it is true, Jim,” he said. “It has all of the hallmarks of being true.”

Kingston thinks all the stuff Humann did was for his own benefit, not the park’s, and can’t be counted toward the exemption in the law: “The language under which Walt’s foundation could be exempted from the general requirement says you do not have to bid it out if you are assigning a management contract to a nonprofit management company that has provided — and that’s key language, ‘has provided’ — significant value to the park or asset to be managed.”

Humann’s group, if there really is such a thing, is brand new and has never raised a nickel. Humann has said he will raise money to match the city’s contribution after the city makes the contribution, which is a little bit backward from what the law seems to anticipate, kind of like agreeing to help the poor if the poor will agree to get rich first.

One of the things the mayor’s team has suggested on multiple occasions is that Humann stepped in selflessly to take on a task nobody else wanted, but critics complain that the mayor can’t say nobody else wants it if he doesn’t ask publicly.

I spoke yesterday to Monte Anderson, a real estate developer who is a respected pioneer in complex, small-scale, urban reuse and redevelopment projects. Anderson notified the mayor last week of his interest in proposing his own Fair Park plan. He told me he did it because he was hearing the rumors about the Humann plan coming undone and hoped they were true.

“One of the main reasons I sent them that was so that the mayor couldn’t say, ‘Hey, well, nobody else wants to bid on it.’”

Anderson said he has done projects as complicated as Fair Park and would approach it in the same general way – striving to create activity and income to offset the public expense of restoring and operating the buildings.

Don Williams, the Southern Dallas philanthropist, has been urging this same point for a year, suggesting a number of ideas to create income streams at Fair Park that would help preserve, not disrupt or defile the art deco buildings. I asked Williams if he might become a bidder if the Humann plan falls through, and he said no. Again. I had asked him the same thing a few weeks ago.

Williams said he had “jumped in with a study, not a plan” over a year ago, only after a confidant in high business circles had called to warn him about the mayor’s plan.

“He said to me, ‘You know what they’re doing, right?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘They’re going to try to do a cram-down and turn Fair Park over to the State Fair.’”

At his own expense Williams engaged Antonio Di Mambro and Associates, a Boston architecture, planning and urban design firm, to come up with a plan for Fair Park intended mainly to open people’s eyes and hopefully elicit even more public input.

“I don’t have a plan,” Williams told me yesterday. “I have a set of principles that I believe in. Put the park first, and, frankly, a pathway to self-sufficiency is another key to that. But that really should be arrived at through a robust community engagement plan.”

A third serious proposal with financial backing, in addition to the Humann and Anderson proposals, is in formative stages, according to a source who spoke to me not for attribution,  also based on the belief that the Humann plan is not long for this world.

We’re a funny town. The Park and Recreation Board voted in favor of the Humann plan after only a minority of members even asked where the plan had come from. It came out of Humann’s pocket, and that was enough.

Even if the city attorney doesn’t cough up a new opinion cratering the Humann plan, Kingston remains convinced his view will prevail, if not at City Hall then perhaps in court. “The moral arc of history is long,” he said, “but it bends toward Philip.” (He was joking, of course, but I just liked the line so much I had to include it.)

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