The first thing to say about the announcement of a deal to privatize Fair Park, the city’s 277-acre Art Deco albatross in South Dallas, is that everybody on every side of this endless bloody debate is utterly stunned. The deal, which would turn over Fair Park to a private operator with a stellar global track record, just seems too good to be true.
The second thing to say is that everybody on every side of the table has got her and his Derringer pistol loaded in the side pocket, because … well, it just seems too good to be true.
Maybe it’s not true. Maybe it’s a fake. We know what to do in that case. Everybody shoots everybody. Another day in Dallas. Call for mop-up.
But, wait. Here’s the even more dicey thing. What if it is true? What if this finally, finally, finally is a chance to do something great with Fair Park, spur economic change in the poor neighborhoods around it and maybe in the process even change the way Dallas proceeds into the future as a city, teaching us the value of an outward perspective as opposed to our traditional hidebound insularity?
What is this all about, anyway, you ask? Ultimately it’s about taking a huge, very rundown exposition park that people only go to during the State Fair of Texas every fall and turning it instead into a truly cool year-round destination, a place to which people would travel from all over the region in every season and day of the year to have fun and see and do interesting things.
Fat chance, you say? You and I should start a club. That’s exactly what I said for years. But we would have to name our organization the Wrong Club, because the world beyond Dallas has already proven us wrong time and time again.
For example, one of the principals in the proposed Fair Park takeover deal, Dan Biederman, was the guy who in 1980 captained the remaking of Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan. Bryant Park was not the park in the 1971 drug docudrama, Panic in Needle Park, but it could have been.
Bryant Park was a scary-bad drug-dealing hellhole before Biederman took it over. Now it’s one of the most successful urban spaces in the world.
Another great modern park Biederman helped design and establish — another one I said would never work — is our own Klyde Warren deck park between downtown and uptown. By the way, if we do form a Wrong Club, I get to be president, OK?
Biederman is part of a package of interests proposing to take over Fair Park and turn it into a year-round attraction, but he’s in it only as a consultant. The gorilla in the room is Comcast, the $22 billion a year telecommunications company headquartered in Philadelphia, operating through a subsidiary called Spectra, which manages entertainment venues and stadiums all over the country.
The Spectra bid was the winner of a months-long vetting process carried out by city staff. Their recommendation goes now to the Dallas Park and Recreation Board for a vote up or down, and then that decision goes to the City Council for a final vote.
The choice of Spectra was announced last Friday. Over the weekend and Monday I spoke to people on several sides of the bidding process. I found universal agreement that the vetting process by staff was meticulous and without compromise or flaw.
That brings us to my own favorite part, the gossip. Ladies and gentlemen, please grab your Derringers (got mine out already).
Last Saturday, the day after the announcement, the Dallas Morning News carried a story quoting Dallas park board Chairman Robert Abtahi saying: “We’re at inning three of this nine-inning game. Innings three through six will be at the Park Board, innings six through nine will be at the council.”
Uh-oh. Innings one through three took two years. So does that mean the game goes on for another six years, barring extra innings?
Abtahi all along has been unapologetically in favor of a competing proposal from the city’s traditional old guard leadership associated with the Dallas Citizens Council and the State Fair of Texas. His horse lost. So his many-many-innings quote was taken as evidence that he will seek to stall the Spectra deal to death.
I was told on very good authority that Abtahi already was out and about last weekend with specific criticisms of the procurement process, such as the placement of a nonprofit group in front of Spectra as the public façade. But when I spoke to Abtahi Monday, he vigorously denied that he had anything against the process, and he offered a different take on the thing about the nonprofit.
He said of the procurement process, “I think they have done the process perfectly.”
He said he did have questions about the money. For example, part of the Spectra proposal involves converting the vast moonscape of parking surrounding the fairgrounds into a green space that one day might even be habitable by human beings. Abtahi pointed out correctly that the bid proposal doesn’t say where the money comes from to do that.
A PowerPoint presentation prepared for the upcoming Thursday meeting of the park board, Abtahi said, fails to say “how they are going to do it or where the money is going to come from.”
He asked, “Is that going to be Spectra’s responsibility, Biederman or the nonprofit?”
That’s a fair question.
Abtahi also raised some questions about how revenues will flow within the deal. According to the PowerPoint as both he and I read it, “excess revenues,” which I think means profit, will not reside with Spectra but instead with the nonprofit.
That’s great and wonderful. Or it’s terrible and awful. Depends on the nonprofit. In this case, the nonprofit, called Fair Park First, is brand-new, an unknown quantity.
Abtahi is correct that the flow of money in the deal is a little unclear in the presentation that has been prepared for the park board. Maybe it’s clear as a bell in the actual contract, which has not yet been made public, but at this point it’s fair to ask.
He has another worry. According to the staff’s scoring system, the Spectra bid won over the other two competing bids mainly because it was the cheapest for the city. In fact, under the Spectra proposal, the city will save $100 million over 10 years and come out of it with a much better park.
So is that really good? Not good enough? Or too good? What if most of us think it’s really good, but Abtahi starts saying it’s too good just because he wants to tank the deal? Well, that’s easy. Derringers. Blammo blammo. That we can do. We have practice.
But here’s the thing. If we go the blammo route and this deal blows up, that's it for Fair Park. Fair Park has broken our hearts and worried us to death long enough. If this deal fails, Fair Park won't get another serious shot in the lifetime of anybody reading this.
Meanwhile, Abtahi’s questions are fair and reasonable, so far. As long as he stays that way, the rest of us, especially those who really love this deal, will have to answer those questions fairly, reasonably and well.
Big political furniture is getting shoved around backstage while this decision is considered. The biggest chunk of oak is that hoary fraternal order and bastion of secret power, the board of the State Fair of Texas. The fair is Fair Park’s anchor tenant. The PowerPoint leaves unclear whether Spectra as operator of Fair Park would have control over the fair. And that’s crazy.
Nobody can run Fair Park effectively if they don’t have the power to tell the fair to get up and scoot over when the time comes. The fact that the staff wasn’t even able to nail that point down in this proposal is testimony to the power and prestige of the fair, which would almost rather die than scoot over for anybody. So that element of the deal needs to be hashed out, as well.
Nothing worth doing is easy, right? There’s a way to get through this without anybody shooting anybody. That’s the way these things are handled in other places, like in, I don’t know, heaven, I guess. We could try.
In the meantime, while we try, we need to recognize that even the effort itself is an enormously important turning point in the history of the city. Dallas has always been a stubbornly inward city, defiantly unwilling to take advice or direction from outside the city limits. That’s really what the ritual presence of the State Fair board represents: the old Dallas, positively paranoid about outside influence.
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We have come to this point only because two City Council members, Scott Griggs and Philip Kingston, stood up two years ago and demanded an open bidding process. Otherwise the skids were greased to effectively turn Fair Park over to the fair. Kingston and Griggs argued effectively that Fair Park was too important to be disposed of in an insider deal.
If this proposal turns out to be half as great in reality as it looks on the surface, it will be because outsiders, people with national and international experience in the arcane field of modern park management, knew how to do something with Fair Park that the rest of us didn’t see.
Would that knock us over with a feather? Not me. I told you about my club already. Does it not make sense that people who do this business all over the world might know better than us how to do it? Could that be where the money comes from?
Let’s go carefully. By that, I mean everybody else should keep their Derringers in their pockets while I keep mine out.