Fair Park's Summer Amusement Venture Is Dead. Is Anyone Surprised?

Wait. The State Fair of Texas spent $30 million to start up a new summertime amusement park at Fair Park. It ran one season -- two months plus a week -- last summer. Now they're giving up already? No second season? What is this, Broadway?

You put in $30 million, and it's such a bust from the get-go that you know already it's a loser forever? I'm not questioning the bust part. The State Fair of Texas, a 128-year-old private organization that leases Fair Park from the city, sort of admitted how crappily things had gone at the end of the first season, even though they would not release attendance or revenue figures.

I'm not claiming 20-20 hindsight here or anything, but frankly I always sort of wondered about paying 15 bucks to park and 30 bucks a head admission for the privilege of wandering around on a sea of concrete in 104 degree heat with bloody streaks of melted cotton candy down my pant-leg. I'm old, so I'm in a crabby mood anyway, and I do worry about getting disoriented in extreme conditions like that, you know, as in, "Just promise me this isn't the fucking after life."

Here is what I keep coming back to. When the city's Office of Economic Development was selling this idea to the City Council, they made such a pitch. Such a pitch! I put a copy of it at the end of this article so you can see for yourself. I remember at the time thinking, "I had no idea!"

The PowerPoint presented to the council said that Fair Park is a bigger attraction and draws more attendance than Seaworld Atlanta, also ahead of Universal Studios Hollywood, Busch Gardens Tampa and Seaworld San Diego. Fair Park, with an annual claimed attendance of 5.47 million (3 million of that is the fair), is kind of up there, according to city staff, in the same neighborhood with Disney California Adventure with 6.28 million visitors a year.

A big difference, it seems to me, and I know I'm not an expert, is that places like Seaworld and Busch Gardens are not aggressively depressing. I know we all forgive Fair Park a lot of her sins during the fair, because it's the fair, and somehow during the fair the fact that the place even comes from the era of the Great Depression is just part of the vibe. I don't think I would even try to toss a ring over the neck of a beer bottle for a plush-toy prize in a place looked all Gucci-to-the-max. Somehow it's a conflict.

But going to a straight-up commercial theme park is different. You pay all that money, you have expectations. Kids have expectations. And kids are horrible. If I still had little ones I wouldn't want to spend a hundred bucks for admission to Fair Park just so I could hear the little brats asking when Mommy and Daddy will have a good enough jobs to take them to Six Flags.

If general attendance at Fair Park is as huge as the city has claimed in the past, if things are going that well and that many people are clamoring to get in at any price, then why did the $30 million summer theme park go bust after one season? Does anybody else but me see a disconnect? I just think there's some kind of major unreality about the place. Like the skit in which the Marx Brothers skip a hotel bill by walking out with their entire wardrobes on their backs, the rich culture vultures have been defecting from Fair Park for decades with their institutions stuffed in their purses. But much as I hate to say it, what's left?

I love the State Fair itself, but the rest of year the place looks like 277 acres of land lost in a time warp. I can't forget my last ill-fated attempt to buy a hamburger at the Old Mill Inn in Fair Park during the off-season, the first time, actually, I experienced after-life anxiety at Fair Park. The whole place had this dusty, cobwebby Miss Havisham's wedding cake aura. Ancient waiters floated by immune to my wildest gesticulations, until I thought, "Maybe this is it. Maybe the big embolism has struck already, and I'm to spend the rest of eternity futilely hailing waiters in the Old Mill Inn."

The sudden collapse of a $30 million venture has to be some kind of red flag, some indication that it's time to re-examine the whole thing. I know it's scary, because if the place is really dying, who is going to be smart enough to think up a new use for it? Judging by their strategy so far, I would predict city staff might even be delighted to see the last institutions and the fair itself leave so they'll have that much more area in which to charge for parking.

The place is already dystopian enough without thinking up other ways to screw it up. As you can tell, I'm already spooked. When it's not fair time and I go, I always wish I had a large cross to hold out in front of me and censer on a chain full of smoky incense. But it's also clear that something is deeply wrong with the way we are using it. It's an enormous asset. We just need to get our fears behind us, take up our pith helmets and our flashlights and penetrate the tomb. And because of my deep and abiding faith in you, Dear Reader, I am willing for you to go first.

ECO FairParkProposedStateFair 020413 by Schutze

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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