When Council Gets Done, Fair Park Could Belong to Putin for All We Know

By the time Mayor Mike Rawlings and City Council Member Tiffinni Young got done talking about economic (ka-ching) development (ka-ching), the so-called community park proposed for Fair Park had all but disappeared.EXPAND
By the time Mayor Mike Rawlings and City Council Member Tiffinni Young got done talking about economic (ka-ching) development (ka-ching), the so-called community park proposed for Fair Park had all but disappeared.
Jim Schutze

When you think you’ve got a done deal at Dallas City Hall, that’s when you need to check to see if you’ve still got your wallet. No, that’s when you need to check to see if you’ve still got your pants.

Oh, sure, I told you here a week ago how the Dallas Park and Recreation Board hammered out a hard-fought agreement for turning over Fair Park, the city’s underused 277-acre albatross in South Dallas, to a private foundation so they can make it better. The park board had to agree on lots of tough issues about money, transparency, a community park, who will keep the murals clean — everything.

So you didn’t think that meant anything was agreed upon, did you? Oh, my goodness, I am so sorry. That’s on me. I forgot to add the legal disclaimer that should be included at the bottom of all my stories about City Hall: “None of this means anything.”

It’s just that … well, I sort of forget to add that sometimes, like all the time, because, you know, I worry that people will stop reading me and do something more productive with their time like catch Pokemon.

But, no. It didn’t mean anything. Even though the park board went through this elaborate public ritual of agreeing on a contract for turning Fair Park over to a private entity, the whole ritual starts again a few weeks from now when the City Council does the same thing all over again. From scratch.

Please. I’m just trying to be straight with you. Don’t blame the messenger, OK, even if the messenger appears to be giving you the finger. It’s just a message, man, not my real finger. Promise.

When the council does take up the Fair Park contract, these will be the issues to watch:

Money

The foundation seeking to take over Fair Park originally asked the city for $1.125 billion over 30 years to run and maintain the park — $75 million in the 2017 bond program for infrastructure and $35 million a year as a management fee. The park board chopped that down to more like $685 million — $75 million in the bond and the rest as the fee.

But the park board had barely voted and the meeting was adjourned only minutes when Walt Humann, the mayor’s point man for the foundation, still in the room where they just did the honors, told Robert Wilonsky at The Dallas Morning News that the $21 million-a-year management fee in the approved terms was way too cheap.

I don’t know. That just seems like a tact thing. You don’t turn around to the person in the pew behind you at a wedding and say, “She’ll never be faithful.” At least wait until everybody’s had a few at the reception.

But Humann also balked at the park board’s decision to knock out an automatic inflation escalator in the agreement. He argued that current fee may have only half its purchasing power 20 years from now.

Maybe we should be glad he brought that up. My own great business/economic acumen here amounts to looking up inflation calculators on the web. The most common projections I can find all put future inflation over a 30-year period at about 2.5 percent.

If you take Humann’s original proposed annual fee of $35 million a year, impose an inflation rate of 2.5 percent a year and run it out for the 30 year life of the contract, the last annual payment is more like $74 million and the total payout is just over $1.5 billion. Now I’m wondering if the groom had his fingers crossed anyway during the vows.

The negotiations that brought the money back down at the park board won’t mean squat when this gets to council. Watch for the amounts in the final contract to get nudged back in that very upward direction. Reach for your wallet. Look for your pants.

Transparency

The entire concept here is that turning Fair Park over to a private entity will get it out of City Council politics, which is not a bad idea, at least in theory. A good deal of the original push probably comes from the State Fair of Texas, the park’s anchor tenant, and one can imagine all sorts of good and reasonable reasons why the State Fair probably doesn’t want the council telling it how to put on its show, similar to the reason I don’t want to put that proviso at the bottom of all my stories. Bye-bye, audience.

But, it does seem as if the public should be able to keep some kind of tabs on how this thing runs. After all, somewhere in the general range of $685 million to $2 billion you start to get into real money, in this case real public money, real tax money. Maybe it’s just one of those tact things again. Don’t ask us for two billion dollars and then when you have a meeting tell us to butt out. It hurts our feelings.

But that’s just what the park board wound up doing. Humann had said originally he didn’t want the foundation hobbled with public information or open meetings requirements. Then he said he had agreed to all of it. 

But at their last negotiating session the park board seemed to adopt the public information requirements related to documents only but voted down a provision that would have required the foundation to make its meetings public.

Watch for an effort to gut all of it at the council. That will mean we will turn over the money to the foundation, however much that winds up being, and then have no ability to attend their meetings, demand to see minutes or contracts, any of it. Just give them one or two bil’, shut the hell up and keep the hell off the property.

The Community Park

The biggest political hurdle to this deal, supposedly, was going to be resistance from the surrounding community, which is mainly poor and African-American and where there is a long legacy of ill-feeling and mistrust based on past use of eminent domain as a tool of racist expropriation. Community leaders in the area, especially younger professionals new to South Dallas, demanded that any restructuring of Fair Park include a connection with surrounding neighborhoods in the form of a significant community park.

But it’s very unclear how much commitment there will be to the community park from minority city council members. Jesse Moreno, the District 2 park board member appointed by City Council member Adam Medrano, stuck up for the community park and comes from a family with a history of activism for community parks. Medrano, who appointed him, will fight for the community park at council.

Marlon Rollins, the park board appointee of District 3 City Council member Casey Thomas II, fought the good fight for the community park to the bitter end — an indication that maybe Thomas will, too, at council.

The problem will be District 7 City Council member Tiffinni Young, whose district directly abuts the area where the park would be built and who, under informal council protocol, has some special privilege in deciding the matter.

Her park board member, Sean Johnson, was a staunch advocate for the community park during the park board’s proceedings. But a few days before the park board’s final vote, Young herself stood with the mayor at a press conference in the lobby of City Hall and ridiculed the whole community park concept:

“I continue to see talk about my people, whatever that means, I don’t know,” she said. “I continue to hear my people are not going to get a park that they were promised. I don’t even know what this park is that folks are talking about.”

How or why would that happen? Well, I don’t know. I did notice that the mayor said in the same press conference he had been chatting with Ms. Young about “economic development” (ka-ching ka-ching), and she did say her primary interest was in economic development (ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching), so who knows? Maybe somebody gets a new restaurant.

At the end of the park board proceedings, the whole community park thing seemed to be sort of up in the air. Look for somebody at City Council to shoot it down.

In other words, the park board suffered through weeks of Sturm und Drang to come up with a deal by which the city would give the foundation $685 million. Look for that to go to $2 billion.

The park board sort of agreed to public access for documents but not for meetings. Look for the documents to disappear. Look for the community park to disappear.

So by the time all of that gets done, who knows? Fair Park could wind up belonging to Vladimir Putin, and nobody will have any idea how it happened.

None of this means anything. But thank you anyway.


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