Take an Embarrassing Peek Into the Love Between the State Fair of Texas and Fair Park

The State Fair of Texas has always been an opaque entity, fiercely guarding its secrets.
The State Fair of Texas has always been an opaque entity, fiercely guarding its secrets.
Kathy Tran

Somebody slipped me a copy of a 2-inch-deep, loose-leaf binder being circulated to members of Dallas' park board, who are stalled on what to do with Fair Park, the city’s 277-acre post-apocalyptic exposition park two miles south of downtown.

No wonder they’re stalled.

This week was supposed to be the deadline for the board to sign off on a plan promoted by the mayor that would have turned Fair Park over to a new private entity. Now the people pushing that plan are hoping to get it done by the end of this month.

They should hope they can get it done by the end of the decade, if there’s anything to this binder. I did not get my copy, by the way, from anybody associated with the authors, the Foundation for Community Empowerment or FCE, but I copied the top part of it to FCE founder Don Williams. He confirmed it is their work.

Much of what’s in it is stuff the park board and City Council should know already. In fact, Williams characterized the whole binder as a compilation of city documents, although he admitted it has taken years, thousands of open records requests and some serious litigation to get a lot of it.

Here’s the deal. We can talk all day long — people do — about various formulations of governance designed to take this vast city-owned property, used three weeks every fall for the State Fair of Texas and then left fallow, a dystopian wasteland, and turn it into something cool. But it all comes back to the State Fair of Texas.

The State Fair is the star attraction, the anchor tenant. Most people take the fair for a great success, although a series of devastating audits and outside reports have tarnished that star in recent months.

Before responsible elected officials can just turn over this massive public asset to some kind of a private something or other, they’ve got to do their due diligence. A handful on the park board, mostly the appointees of the City Council’s new, younger members, want to know what the State Fair’s role will be in the new arrangement and how the new entity will manage hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars being sought from the city for a major redevelopment of the park.

Some park board members have already been saying they have cold feet about the mayor’s plan, which tilts heavily in favor of the State Fair as the prime tenant. If they dive very deep into this binder, they’re going to feel that chill up to their chinny-chin-chins.

For me the chillingest section is some correspondence, letters and emails, that FCE somehow got its hands on (bet it wasn’t easy) between former State Fair President Errol McKoy and former Dallas Park and Recreation Department Director Paul Dyer,  all about the Cotton Bowl.

The board that controls the State Fair, heavily populated by moneyed gray-hairs and blue-beards from the Park Cities, dearly loves its Cotton Bowl football stadium at Fair Park, which it considers to be its own property, even though it’s not, and where a grand total of three football games are played per year, two during the annual fair.

The correspondence I’m talking about in the FCE binder starts in 2007, when McKoy, then boss of the fair, tells Dyer, his landlord at City Hall, that the $30.5 million in bond funds that the city just kicked in to spruce up the Cotton Bowl wasn’t enough. It seems the State Fair board wants to see another $4.5 million, not of their own money, spent to create a new post-game media center, better team locker rooms and a nicer finish-out for concessions at the Cotton Bowl.

But no problem. McKoy helpfully gives Dyer a refresher course on Dyer’s own budget, pointing out to Dyer that Dyer still has $4.5 million in bond funds in his budget to renovate a complex of buildings at the back of the Cotton Bowl where the cooking exhibits and petting zoo and stuff like that are — you know, all that corny stuff where people who can’t afford $185 Cotton Bowl tickets go.

McKoy writes: “The State Fair suggests that the $4.5 million allocation from the bond program for the Pan American Complex be reallocated to the Cotton Bowl Phase 2 construction budget. In return, the State Fair will agree to fund the restoration of the Pan American complex during the same time frame contemplated by the original bond sale schedule.”

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So you get that, right? McKoy is proposing a transaction that might be characterized by the well known if not always welcome principle of finance expressed colloquially as, “I will gladly pay you Friday for a hamburger today.”

But then the thing is, that damn Friday rolls around.

Everyone assumes the State Fair is an unbridled success, but a series of recent audits and reports have left it with a black eye.
Everyone assumes the State Fair is an unbridled success, but a series of recent audits and reports have left it with a black eye.
Kevin Brown

In this case, Friday is March 12, 2010, when McKoy writes to Dyer at City Hall again, talking to Dyer again about Dyer’s own budget, reminding him that the city recently received a $1 million grant from the state of Texas having something to do with livestock facilities at Fair Park. McKoy tells Dyer that this grant was obtained “through our efforts,” meaning Dyer has the State Fair, really, to thank for the money.

McKoy asks, therefore, that the $4.5 million the State Fair still owes the city to pay for the Pan American project “be offset by this $1 million commitment and our obligation be reduced to $3.5 million.”

In the real world, a real landlord might say, “Look, we gave you $4.5 million for your finish-out. You said you would pay us back $4.5 million. You don’t need to worry about money we get from other places. Just pay us what you said you would pay us.”

But we didn’t finish McKoy’s letter yet. Farther down, after McKoy says the State Fair wants a million dollar credit for money the city got from the state, McKoy describes another major investment that the State Fair is making in a summer entertainment program. Because that is costing the fair a lot of its own money, McKoy says he wants the city to “mutually agree that the State Fair should be fully relieved of the remaining $3.5 million commitment.”

Wow. That’s a bad Friday. He already got the hamburger. He said he didn’t want to pay for the bun. Then he said he didn’t want to pay for the burger. Not even the pickles.

And City Hall said OK.

That’s exactly what the members of the park board and the City Council should be thinking about. It comes down to kind of a class thing.

On the one end of the correspondence, you’ve got McKoy, who has all of the Park Cities behind him, the power and the glory, the high-end tailgaters. On the other end you have a mid-level City Hall bureaucrat, beaten about the ears for years, ditched and undefended half the time by his own elected betters, and he’s the one who’s supposed to guard the public treasure. So he throws open the vault and says, “Please be gentle.”

The end of that story is written before the first page is turned, and the end will always be the same if City Hall turns Fair Park and all that money over to the tailgate crowd. They have a different version of Friday. Theirs is, “We will have a free hamburger today, and then we will have another one Friday.”

Before that park board votes to give away 277 acres, a cherished chapter of city history and a golden opportunity, they damn well better hold a separate meeting just on this binder.


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