State Rep. Eric Johnson, Democrat of southern Dallas and Mesquite, has an essay on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News today describing Fair Park as a "powerful economic engine" and a "jewel of our city" whose economic power should be harnessed to improve life in surrounding poor neighborhoods.
But the same essay ticks off a list of major institutions that have bailed on Fair Park in recent years to relocate in tonier venues in or near the downtown Arts District, far from the dilapidated houses and lounging unemployed outdoor paper-bag sippers who tend to scare off the high-culture clientele.
In fact, at one point Johnson even blames Fair Park for the poverty of the surrounding area: "Because Fair Park is known primarily as a seasonal venue to most Dallasites," Johnson writes, "the surrounding neighborhoods have experienced a prolonged period of steady decline."
His one concrete suggestion for repairing the damage Fair Park has done to the people who live around it is a proposal to move the Martin Luther King Community Center into Fair Park. The center is a place I have visited often both as a working reporter and as an unworking reporter. When I was jobless some years ago, it was the closest place for me to go to sign up for unemployment benefits. It functions today mainly as a distribution center for a variety of social services.
Johnson isn't a bit wrong about the long-term trends at Fair Park. Obviously, all of the main visitor attractions except the annual State Fair are taking hikes one after another, going where their audiences want to be. Some day if Jerry Jones can come up with a way to stage the fair in Arlington, we can expect to see that last supporting icon take off for the 'burbs in about a New York minute too.
But proposing to fix the ills of the surrounding area by turning Fair Park into the world's biggest distributor of entitlements seems far-fetched. How would that help? To change their destinies, people in the area around Fair Park need jobs, not benefits.
For example, what about this idea? Why not bulldoze all those worn-out, under-used, crappy-looking buildings that were temporary in the first place when they were thrown up three-quarters of a century ago? In their place, create a start-up industrial zone.
What the surrounding area really needs is a center of employment. But that area needs a certain kind of employment. If you put a bunch of high-tech indoor clean-shirt jobs in there, the jobs will all get scarfed up in about two days by interlopers from Richardson -- better-trained, highly experienced job-seekers.
Fair Park needs to be a center for the kind of hard, dirty, outdoor work nobody else wants to do, the work that gives a leg up to people just entering the job market for the first time. At the same time, the entire city might benefit enormously from having a kind of incubator industrial park that provides start-up opportunity for a certain kind of entrepreneur. I'm thinking of people who can get their hands on the necessary capital from informal social network sources rather than the mainstream institutional bankers who have always red-lined this area anyway.
The vision I see, when I think of ways to tap Fair Park's potential and boost the fortunes of people who live nearby, is of a vast terrain serving as home to things like Korean-owned scrapyards. I'm just using that as an example.
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Is it worth at least a try? Could we experiment with this idea? I'm thinking we take some of the most obviously useless real estate down there, stuff like the offices of Friends of Fair Park, scrape it and invite in a handful of down-and-dirty immigrant start-up low-end enterprises. Maybe we could start with 10 or so, just to see how it goes.
The money that rains down on Fair Park during the brief annual run of the State Fair disappears into the ground without a trace, as far as the surrounding area is concerned, and that breaks my bleeding heart. In its "Ten Drops in the Bucket" series of editorials, the Morning News keeps talking about run-down houses and vacant storefronts in the area, as if patching up crappy buildings will somehow serve to change the fundamental destiny of the people who live in and near them.
But when I see all that money soaking into the ground at the fair, it occurs to me that people in the area around the fair don't even own their own buckets. Maybe that's what an industrial zone at Fair Park could provide.
Hey. Light-bulb moment. We could call that initial experimental phase "Ten Buckets." Forget about the damn holes.