The Boys May Not Want to Privatize Fair Park After All

Only Big Tex knows the secret handshake.
Only Big Tex knows the secret handshake. Jim Schutze
Boys. Really. C’mon. Be real.

I am addressing myself here to the boys — the mayor, the private Dallas Citizens Council, the board of directors of the State Fair of Texas. I know. Some of you are girls. But, face it. You’re the boys, too.

So, boys. Listen to me. Privatizing Fair Park was your idea. You can’t change your mind about privatization just because your own boy may not get selected.

How long have you been pushing for privatization? Almost four years? It was August 2014 when Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings first publicly pitched the idea of a private entity to run Fair Park, our 277-acre albatross in South Dallas where the fair takes place every fall.

Sure, he was right about one thing. Something needed to be done. Something major. Decades ago, Fair Park was the city’s cultural hub. Everything was there — the art museum, the symphony, the ballet, the best theaters.

But then, as now, Fair Park was surrounded by black neighborhoods. Beginning in the 1980s, the rich white people pulled out all of the high-dollar cultural facilities, removing them to the new arts district on the north side of downtown, where the rich white people could drive without seeing poor people. So, yes, except for the three-week run of the fair every year when it’s jammed, Fair Park has turned into the nation’s largest unoccupied art deco slum.

The push to do something useful with it actually predated the mayor’s idea by at least a decade. Several iterations, in fact, offered ways to turn Fair Park into an economic generator and social asset that would benefit the entire city but especially the neighborhoods around Fair Park. Those ideas tended to share a common theme.

Back in its heyday, Fair Park was an elegant fortress, a medieval castle protected from the poor villagers by high iron fences, massive gates and an army of security. Long processions of elegant automobiles carried people in furs and evening clothes through that shabby village to the great gates that swallowed them from sight. The meaning was not lost.

Philip Kingston, the East Dallas pit bull on the City Council who happens to be a lawyer, said he didn’t think the mayor had the legal authority to just give a 277-acre park full of city-owned buildings to a friend of his, even a great guy.

tweet this
Almost all of the ideas for bringing back radiance and hubbub to Fair Park have included some important element of reconnecting it — well, connecting it for the first time — to the neighborhoods around it. Accessible public spaces, schools, activities, employment: Some array of connective tissue could be created to make Fair Park a healthy addition to its surroundings rather than a social canker.

But that would entail major changes in the way the park operates. As it is now, the park is run almost exclusively for the benefit of the State Fair of Texas, its largest tenant and best source of income. During the long months when the fair is dormant, much of the acreage serves as a storage yard for its facilities. The immense midway and many of the buildings that hum with activity during the fair are post-apocalyptic during the rest of the year.

In other words, the serious ideas for turning Fair Park into a different kind of entity — one capable of attracting big crowds of people and generating activity all year long — all involve requiring the State Fair to change its act. Sometimes it’s something as simple as the fair withdrawing to a somewhat smaller footprint within Fair Park.

Sometimes it’s more radical — the use of temporary buildings and tents, for example to allow other year-round uses for the park’s many buildings. But almost all of the ideas for remaking Fair Park, all but one, have involved reducing the proprietary control of the park by the State Fair of Texas.

Back to the boys. You boys know all of this, and you don’t like it. You never did. Yours is a tight fraternity, even if it does admit girls now. Between the private Dallas Citizens Council and the board of directors of the State Fair of Texas, you own all the secret handshakes in town.

The mayor’s original proposal for the privatization of Fair Park, therefore, was to do it by giving Fair Park to you, the boys. He handpicked — well, you handpicked — retired oil executive Walt Humann to head the new private entity, and then the mayor sort of announced it as a done deal, like, “I have decided to give Fair Park to my friend Walt. He’s a great guy. Thank you.”

Walt Humann really is a great guy. But Philip Kingston, the East Dallas pit bull on the City Council who happens to be a lawyer, said he didn’t think the mayor had the legal authority to just give a 277-acre park full of city-owned buildings to a friend of his, even a great guy.

The city attorney agreed. He said the mayor can’t just give away large parks to great guys, or even small ones, for that matter. In order to turn over a public asset to a private entity, state law requires that the city adhere to a fairly rigorous protocol: requests for proposals, an arms’ length vetting process, a system of scoring that is fair enough to be defended in court, that sort of thing.

click to enlarge The State Fair of Texas is the glue that holds the whole idea of Texas together. - JIM SCHUTZE
The State Fair of Texas is the glue that holds the whole idea of Texas together.
Jim Schutze
The mayor defended his concept — just give it to Walt — by saying he didn’t believe anybody else would be interested. But as soon as Kingston got the process opened up to the public, two additional serious bidders showed up. One is a local developer with a stunning track record for spurring unsubsidized organic economic development in downtrodden areas. The other is a successful international developer of major entertainment venues.

Wow. So somebody more than just Walt is interested. Very interested!

By my count, boys, the whole bidding and vetting and scoring process should have been over and the results announced at least six months ago. You, the boys, have devoted enormous energy to slowing it down, complicating it, making sure your chosen handmaidens were well represented in the process. And, you know, that’s business. It’s not against the law for you to pursue your own interests.

But now all of a sudden, we are at a really interesting moment. At last week’s meeting of the Dallas park board, one of your people — I’m talking to you, now, boys — started talking out of the blue about how privatization is now a bad idea. Another of your people argued that when the final package goes to the park board for a vote, the board can’t modify the contract at all. All the board can do, according to this person, is vote thumbs up or thumbs down. If it's voted down, that’s it for privatization, so maybe we should forget about it.

All of which, of course, is absolute nonsense. I talked to the pit bull about it. After the park board votes on it, the whole thing goes to the City Council anyway for final approval.

“All we would have to do,” Kingston told me, “is reject the staff’s recommendation and start the process again, and frankly I don’t care if we do. It’s an important asset, and I’d rather get it right.”

Neither gentlemanly nor ladylike, as the case may be. You’re supposed to play the game to the very end, then take your lumps or your glory on the scoreboard with some dignity.

tweet this
All of this comes amid rumors that the city staff and outside consultants charged with carrying out this process made their decision months ago, and it’s not going to be Walt. And, please, let me say again that no one has told me that on any kind of real authority.

It could be Walt. I could be wrong. But here is what makes me so very deeply, so profoundly suspicious. Why on earth would your social cannon fodder guys on the park board all of a sudden be talking as if maybe we need to abandon the whole privatization thing?

No, look, you started this. I know your idea of privatization was way more private than the law allows. And I know none of this public bidding and vetting and scoring business was anything you ever wanted or intended.

But you started this, and once you did, Kingston and the city attorney were right. It had to be done according to the law.

Let’s try putting this on a basis that you, the boys, may have an easier time understanding. Let’s imagine that the Highland Park Scots, a wonderful high school football team on which many of you played in your youth, is ahead 27-zip in the final two minutes of a game against the Jesuit Rangers. All of a sudden, a bunch of Jesuits come out on the field carrying ancient tomes, and they start arguing that the game of football should be abandoned as a heresy.

See what I mean? No fair, right? Poor sportsmanship. Neither gentlemanly nor ladylike, as the case may be. You’re supposed to play the game to the very end, then take your lumps or your glory on the scoreboard with some dignity.

And, look, can I say something else? Nobody wants to get rid of the fair. The state fair is wonderful. It isn’t just great fun. Those country kids scuffling down the midway in their too-big boots and too-small hats, those gangling city kids gawping at the big pigs: The State Fair of Texas is a cultural and historical glue that helps hold the very essence of Texas together. Nobody blames you for husbanding it so dearly. We don’t even blame you for having all those secret handshakes. That’s fun, too.

But try being a little more trusting, a little more open, less brittle and rigid. And, boys, every little chance you get, man up.
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze