A movement may be afoot to undo the whole yearlong deal by which a contract could be awarded to a major entertainment company to run Fair Park, our neglected and run-down 277-acre exposition park in South Dallas. Killing that deal would be an absolute tragedy for Fair Park and for the city.
Three parties vied with each other in a painstaking vetting process to be chosen to run Fair Park. None of them — nobody, winners, losers, anybody — has said anything bad about the vetting process by city staff. It was up-and-up, clear and fair, according to all parties.
The winner was a major international entertainment company called Spectra by Comcast Spectacor (long name), a global hosting and entertainment company. That a company of this stature was even interested in Fair Park was a huge surprise for everybody. No one was surprised they won.
Humann’s idea was to bill the city for tens of millions of dollars every year to run the place and then bill the city for hundreds of millions more in bond money to maybe fix the buildings.
The Fair Park privatization process began with the mayor publicly stating what has always been the white, wealthy power structure position on running Fair Park — that nobody was interested. Indeed, the power structure wasn’t interested. Beginning in the 1980s, they pulled all of the city’s major cultural institutions out of Fair Park and turned their backs on the place, launching the park’s grisly descent into disrepair and abandonment.
Since supposedly nobody gave a rat’s ass about Fair Park, the mayor said the thing to do was turn it over to a friend of his, retired Hunt Oil executive Walt Humann, who would serve as sort of an executor. Humann’s idea was to bill the city for tens of millions of dollars every year to run the place and then bill the city for hundreds of millions more in bond money to maybe fix the buildings, even though voters had clearly demonstrated at the polls that they did not want to do that.
Two members of the Dallas City Council, Scott Griggs and Philip Kingston, both lawyers, put up their hands and called a halt. They said the mayor was just one vote on the council. State laws prohibited giving away public property. The mayor lacked the authority to just hand over 277 acres.
A former city attorney said they were wrong and the mayor could do whatever he wanted. That guy left. We got a new city attorney, Larry Casto.
Casto reviewed state law, reviewed the City Charter, reviewed maybe his high school civics class or something and said Kingston and Griggs were right, the mayor can’t just give public parks away to his friends. (Stuff like this is why I actually need a tinfoil hat to protect me from harmful rays.)
Casto said the city had to put the privatization of Fair Park out for bids. That’s where we got the yearlong bidding and vetting process.
Humann went around town with a loose-leaf binder of photos showing what a god-awful piece of crap Fair Park had become and saying taxpayers should give him tens of millions of dollars to take it over. I looked at the folder. My first thought was, “How much to nuke it?”
The problem was that there was nothing much going on out there except for the State Fair of Texas for three weeks every fall. So why would we pay to restore and maintain a bunch of super-expensive empty buildings?
Defying the mayor’s predictions, two other bidders showed up. One was Monte Anderson, the guy who redeveloped the Belmont Hotel and Tyler Station in Oak Cliff. He’s an against-the-grain developer who has found great success pursuing a philosophy he calls “gentlefication” (making things better without running off the people who have always been there).
Anderson’s concept was basically to put Fair Park to work, get it to pay its own way by finding year-round enterprises capable of paying rent. He saw Fair Park as an economic generator for the bitterly poor, mostly African-American neighborhoods around it.
Anderson’s bid was a surprise. Here was a serious guy with a serious interest and a serious plan for Fair Park. The other big surprise was Spectra.
Spectra is a division of Comcast, a telecommunications company with $4.3 billion a year in cash flow. Other Comcast subsidiaries are NBC, NBCUniversal, Xfinity and Telemundo. Spectra runs 319 properties around the nation, including 22 fairgrounds, 124 arenas, 50 convention centers and 37 amphitheaters. It claims to host 40 million people annually at 200,000 events.
The next step, still in abeyance, is for the park board to give its thumbs up or down to the proposed contract with Spectra. Either way, the contract goes after that to the City Council for a final say-so.
A package of documents is circulating around the city now — I have a copy — with evidence designed to show two things. The first is that the Spectra proposal to run Fair Park is no good. The second is that the proposed contract doesn’t reflect what was called for in the bidding process.
One of the people pitching this line to me advised me to call Monte Anderson, one of the losing bidders, because he would have the absolute paranoid skinny on what was wrong with Spectra. I was paranoid excited. I called him right away. I did not take notes, so I can’t quote him word for word, but I can very closely paraphrase what he told me:
Anderson told me he was disappointed not to get the deal. He was skeptical of the Spectra proposal at first. But then he attended a park board briefing on it.
He said he was absolutely blown away by the Spectra presentation. He said when he started looking at Spectra itself — at the size and reach of its global operations — he realized his bid and Humann’s had never even been in the same ballpark.
Anderson told me he couldn’t believe somebody of this magnitude and stature was willing to take on Fair Park. It looked to him like the best thing that has happened to Fair Park and one of the best things to happen to the city in his memory.
So who doesn’t like the Spectra deal? Who out there is churning the anti-Spectra story? Here is where I feel my role on Mount Paranoia can be of service.
No one will admit yet upfront that they are opposing Spectra. But somebody is. Big-time. The most powerful big-time interest backing the Walt Humann proposal is the State Fair of Texas, which is far and away Fair Park’s biggest remaining tenant and source of income.
In the decades of abandonment while all of the other cultural institutions were fleeing Fair Park, the fair’s dominance grew, in no small part by default. In many ways, the Humann proposal looks like an effort sponsored by the fair to guard against any changes that might diminish the fair’s hegemony.
Alarms went off this week when Casto, the city attorney, announced his retirement. The fear of those who oppose the Humann proposal and favor Spectra is that Casto’s successor might flip the bidding decision and say it’s OK for the mayor to just give Fair Park to Humann.
I spoke to Casto after his announcement. He said, “I can unequivocally say with absolute certainty there will be no reversal of any legal opinion regarding the necessity to have an open and transparent bidding process.
“There is a lot of scuttlebutt on the street about procedure and vote counting and whatnot. But, no, there is no contemplation of any kind going on to scrap the bidding process.”
But, of course, it’s the scuttlebutt I care about. I suspect the anti-Spectra campaign is aimed not so much at killing the bidding process as at killing the proposed contract with Spectra. The claim will be that the bidding process was OK but the contract doesn’t match up with what the bidding process called for. Therefore the City Council should kill the contract.
Two members of the Dallas City Council, Scott Griggs and Philip Kingston, both lawyers, put up their hands and called a halt. There were state laws against giving away public property. The mayor lacked the authority to just give away 277 acres.
If and when that happens, a new, more pliant city attorney could come in handy. The question for her or him will be what happens if the council does reject the contract?
The reasonable outcome would seem to be for the city to renegotiate whatever parts of the contract may be in contention in order to salvage what looks like a wonderful deal for Dallas. But a new, yes-sir-yes-ma’am city attorney could rule that the contract is a product of the bidding process and cannot be rejected without voiding the process. In that case, Fair Park will be up for grabs again.
So here is my paranoid advice and counsel: listen for tone, watch for long knives. Do you hear people talking about ways to improve this deal? Or do you hear a lot of unsupported innuendo suggesting the whole deal is rotten and there’s something wrong with Spectra?
The only reason for anybody to promulgate that second line of argument is a home-fried good-old-boy agenda to flip Fair Park back to Humann and the state fair, and that, I would argue, is not being paranoid. That’s just being around Dallas a long time.