City Hall

City Council Can't Just Give Fair Park Away and Then Claim They Fixed It

OK, Dallas City Council, this is between us and please don’t tell our readers about it here at the Dallas Observer. In fact please don’t tell the Observer about it, either. I wish you would go into a smoke-filled room, shut me out totally, draw the blinds, refuse to comment, stonewall all of the public information demands, cheat on the open meetings law and actually get something done.

This is about fixing Fair Park, the 277-acre treasure at the heart of the city, home to the State Fair of Texas — the fair being the only thing about Dallas that everybody loves. I have talked about this a lot – did you see my story with the picture of the iconic Big Tex figure with a black eye? – but I don’t want you to listen to me or anybody else in the media right now. I want you to hide from us. Hide from everybody. Maybe that way you can come up with an arrangement that will actually work.

From what I can pick up, everybody including you and your grandma agrees by now that Fair Park’s only hope for the future is to be taken out from under your own direct control. You probably get this better than I do, better than anybody. You know why you can’t run it.

If Fair Park, a city property, continues to be run by you and your appointees to the Dallas Park Board, then you will continue to be on the phone every other day with some dude who put 50 bucks into your campaign coffers two years ago and now he wants a hot-dog concession. If it’s not him on the phone, it’s somebody from your church asking you to remove all of the black people from the neighborhoods around Fair Park – or all of the white people from the fair itself.

You don’t want this. You don’t need this. But Fair Park needs you.

I said everybody loves the state fair. Right? I already said that. OK then. It has been said. But you and I know there’s a huge problem with the fair trying to act like it owns Fair Park. It doesn’t. You do. Fair Park is a city of Dallas property, both a responsibility and asset.

Some of my own explanations in the past for why the state fair wants to run things may not have been so smart. To me it was always all about arrogance, because, you know, that’s my thing. But if you look closer at the fair, as I did for my piece – the one with the black eye, you saw that right? – then you realize that the state fair is in show business. The people who run that show have to protect the show from getting mucked up by politics.

The state fair is theirs, not yours. They have been very successful with it. It can’t be a good idea for you or anybody else to start telling them how to put on their show.

But the park is yours. You are responsible for how it will be run and what it will or will not become in the future.

The state fair has a perfectly natural human tendency – notice I am restraining myself from calling them arrogant even though it’s about to give me a brain aneurysm – to want to throw its weight around.

You’ve heard all the complaints – control over parking, the amount of time the fair locks down the park before and after the fair and so on. Hopefully by now you have some insight into other power-sharing issues between the fair and the smaller institutional tenants of Fair Park. And you know by now that there is a larger overarching public interest in making Fair Park a real year-round park meaningfully connected to the city and especially to its next-door neighborhoods.

So any successful formulation for the future entails a tough balancing act. The state fair must be allowed and encouraged to build on its history of success. But Fair Park cannot be run by the state fair.

The fair's board is and has always been dominated by a small cadre of people who are not Dallas residents. They live in the gold-coast enclave communities of Highland Park and University Park. For all of the reasons we have already touched on, you cannot allow Fair Park to be run by non-Dallas residents. Doing so would tip the balance of power toward the state fair but, worse, it would alienate Fair Park from the people of Dallas, who own it.
Here is what I am hearing: the plan on the part of the state fair/Park Cities element is to present you with a fait accompli slate for the board of the new private entity to run the park and then tell you to vote on that whole slate up or down. The board of the entity would then be self-perpetuating in perpetuity — self perp-perp, we might call it for short.

If you accept that deal – a Park Cities self-perp-perp board that you then have to swallow all or none – then you are egregiously abdicating your responsibilities as stewards of this invaluable civic asset.

But if you go to the other polar extreme and insist on a 14-1 board on which each of you appoints a member, then you’re right back where you started, on the phone every other day with the campaign contributor who wants a hot dog stand. You will have changed and improved nothing.

So here is where we get to the smoke-filled room. You already know how to fix the 14-1 problem. Don’t have a 14-member board. Make it fewer than that. Then it’s no longer a matter of each of you appointing his or her own board member.

You can fix the state fair problem just as easily. Make the board Dallas residents only. Don’t allow any tenant of Fair Park, big or small, to be on the board or have a surrogate on the board. Put all the tenants, the fair included, into an advisory body so the board will be able to hear their opinions, but keep them off the board.

The tougher part is making the board representative of the city. We all know what it has meant in this city when people have said things like, citizens should serve the city according to merit and commitment, not according to any artificial formula of race, creed or social position. The proper translation of that kind of statement always winds up being that everything should be run by rich white guys from Highland Park.

No, it shouldn’t. Making a body like this new private entity at Fair Park representative of the city is smart governance and responsible stewardship. The city contains diverse communities with unique goals and perspectives, and bringing all of those eyes and voices to the table is what makes sense.

You all can do all of that, if you can get out of public view for 10 minutes. It means the white people on the council can pick their best three white people for the board. The black people can choose their best three. Same for Hispanics. There should be an emphasis on women – maybe even a majority of women because … because men. And everybody on every board and commission in Dallas needs to be younger. For one thing, young people can handle social and gender diversity better than old people.

And then make sure that new private entity knows it needs to scour the nation and recruit the very best P.T. Barnum showman and impresario it can find to run Fair Park. Fair Park needs to have some kind of blockbuster festival, fair, show or concert going on every single weekend to draw people in  from far and wide all the time, all year round.

So you all get yourself squeezed in there, butts-and-elbows in your separate little smoke-filled rooms. Don’t ask me what to do for the smoke. Rent a machine from a party store. But smoke the place up and get to work.

I beat on the door. I demand to know what you’re doing in there. You say: “We’re trying to guess each other’s weight.” Well, you already tell me stuff like that anyway. My point is, tell me to go to hell and do the basic politics, folks. That’s what we pay you the small bucks for.

You need to get the political shovel-work on this done before you vote on it. Don’t let a bunch of suits hand you some pre-selected self-perp-perp board and then demand that you vote it up or down. You just can’t be that weak.

You wouldn’t buy a car that way. The salesman says, “I’m sorry, ma’am, I can’t let you look under the hood, and I can’t offer you a warranty, and in fact I can’t even let you sit in the car, but I do want my money now.” So you just say OK? I don’t think so.

All of the formulations I know of include a huge ask in terms of operating and capital subsidy. The down-payments on capital improvements start north of $75 million the first year, and the annual operating subsidies are in the tens of millions of dollars in perpetuity.

If you give away our 277-acre park, if you give away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money – our money, not Park Cities money — if you just hand all of that over to a self perp-perp board, and you do it because you lacked the basic moxie to get the right political deal done first, then I really want you to know something: Your time in those seats, however many years you may sit there, will have accomplished nothing but to wear out the upholstery. You just couldn’t have a bigger fail on your watch than that.

That’s why you need some time off-stage, out of the limelight, away from prying eyes including my own. You need to come up with a formulation that threads all the needles and balances all of the scales – protects the fair but holds it at bay, guarantees political and social responsiveness but insulates the park from your own direct control, shapes that first board but then sets it free.

You can do this. I plan to complain about it the whole time. That’s how you’ll know you’re doing something right. As per usual.