State Fair of Texas

Dallas Might Pay Three Times as Much to Not Run Fair Park. Yeah, That's Right.

Just talking about making any changes to Fair Park that might affect the State Fair of Texas is enough to get Dallas worked up. We do so love the fair. That explains why City Hall was packed Wednesday for a City Council briefing — just that, not even a whiff of a decision was in the air — to hear what Walt Humann had to say. Humann, a former Hunt Oil executive also known as the "father of DART," is the latest in a long line of people given the job of figuring out what to do with the park. He was there to tell everyone about the "future of Fair Park" — the very, very pricey future.

Most of Humann's talk juxtaposed the Fair Park we know — the one that is fun for the month or so the State Fair runs — with what the park could be if only we'll dump enough money into it and take management away from City Hall. Fair Park's greatest value is as a host to the fair, but its buildings are crumbling and need as much as $500 million in upgrades. The park has "an abundance of unique venues and grounds," he said, but too much ground is covered by asphalt. Fair Park could be the home of an enterprise worth more than $1 billion, but its current management structure makes it impossible for the park to be managed with a coherent vision.

To make Fair Park a place more people want to visit when corny dogs aren't involved and turn it into a revenue generator, Humann suggested giving control of the park to a nonprofit agency created just to manage it. Don't call it "privatizing," though. The city would still own the park and kick in loads of money, but the nonprofit would have an independent board (no "political appointees" on it) that would hire a CEO to run the place. The city would need to bump its contribution to Fair Park from $10 million annually now to $35 million and kick in more than $100 million from future bond programs to replace Fair Park buildings, which have been around more than 60 years past their 20-year expiration date.

Council member Philip Kingston criticized Humann's idea to use borrowed money to fix up the park's crumbling art deco buildings, among other complaints.

“Your proposal would take well in excess of $10 million out of the street budget for each council district in the next bond package, and there's not much of an appetite for that," he said.

Kingston and his colleague Scott Griggs also took to social media to mock the proposed organizational chart for privatized Fair Park. "Dog breakfast," Kingston called it. "Byzantine Bureaucracy," Griggs wrote.
Others, namely council member Rickey Callahan and Mayor Mike Rawlings — who want to see the Park Board tackle the issue before a yet unscheduled public hearing and vote on the plan — were more enthusiastic. Callahan went the simple, jargony route, saying that privatizing the park would create a game-changing dynamic. Rawlings' prose was a bit more purple.

"I’ve never dealt with big, big issues effectively in a piecemeal fashion. You’ve got to load up your guns, aim it right between the eyes and deal with it. That’s [how] we’re trying to deal with it. Are we going to spend the money necessary, and how do we organize?"
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young