City Hall

Just For Grins, How About Some Actual Truth-Telling On Fair Park?

Maybe this is all moot. Letters and emails are flying around all over town, one side accusing or attacking the other in the debate about privatizing Fair Park, but I think the deal is done already anyway. No matter what anybody says about it, Mayor Mike Rawlings probably has the votes he needs on the City Council to adopt a plan to turn Fair Park over to a private foundation.

This is about our 277-acre Art Deco exposition park two miles east of downtown in a poor minority part of the city. The mayor wants to turn it over to a private outfit, called the Fair Park Texas Foundation, and pay them on a sliding scale, $12 million to $21 million a year, to run it — eventually more than twice what the city spends to run it now.

I saw the same intense interest in the crowd at a City Hall briefing on it Monday that I have seen at earlier events on the Fair Park turnover question. The council chamber, which has 250 seats, was filled to over-flowing Monday with residents from every walk and neighborhood. It’s hard to remember another stewardship issue that has stirred this level of interest and passion in the city.

But for that reason, even if the cake is baked already, it’s important to sort back through the din of battle and pin down some truth about what has been said. For example, one of the social media blasts that went out over the weekend (recirculated by my wife on Facebook) was from Virginia McAlester, my friend and neighbor who is the city’s undisputed subject matter expert and longtime activist in historic preservation. She said the following:

“Those who lead the vehement opposition to the Fair Park Texas Foundation have real estate development in mind. AND, THE REAL ESTATE DEVELOPMENT IS NOT ADJACENT TO FAIR PARK, IT IS IN FAIR PARK (her caps)!”

She also said, “The Fair Park Texas Foundation is the equivalent of the Central Park Conservancy.”

I know that McAlester is passionately committed to saving the Art Deco architecture at Fair Park from what she believes to be imminent irretrievable loss. But with the greatest respect for her authority on these questions, I have to say that my own view of the proposed plan is very different.

The accusation that somebody wants to churn Fair Park as a real estate development has been uttered and muttered repeatedly by other partisans of the mayor’s plan as a personal slur aimed at J. McDonald "Don" Williams, a philanthropist active in southern Dallas issues for many years who is the leader of the camp opposing the mayor’s plan.

Before he retired in 2002, he was chairman of the board of Trammell Crow Co., either the biggest real estate company in the known universe or one of the biggest, depending on what you believe. But since then, Williams has assured me, he hasn’t done a dime’s worth of real estate business.

And, look, if a guy who once held that kind of position in the real estate business really wanted to come off the bench and pull off an incredibly complicated land play with about a million moving political parts, I just don’t think he’s going to do it at Fair Park.

Furthermore, Williams has always been very plain about the role he does think real estate should play in the future of Fair Park, the entire history of which has been a bleak and bitter saga of neglect. Williams thinks socking hundreds of millions of dollars into fixing up the buildings is not a plan, because what happens after that?

Even when the buildings have been repaired and spit-shined, will that mean anything has been done to reverse the basic dynamic of neglect that put them in their current state of deplorable decay in the first place? Or won’t they just start getting deplorable all over again?

The Williams plan has never been for Don Williams to redevelop Fair Park. Maybe in this kind of debate there’s no such thing as dirty pool, but I think using his corporate history against him on this is at least not very nice pool.

Williams wants the city to redevelop Fair Park for public uses that would generate rent to maintain the park in the future. One idea he has floated is inviting an academic institution to take up residence in some of the historic structures at Fair Park. He thinks acquiring permanent rent-paying tenants might one day take Fair Park out of the hat-in-hand dependence on the taxpayers that the mayor’s plan contemplates for Fair Park forever.

And Williams isn’t just pulling the idea of income-generating tenants out of thin air or from his own experience in the private sector. He has examined other successful big urban public parks around the country and concluded that, between rents and aggressive fundraising, the best ones find some way to achieve relative independence from tax money. At least they give the taxpayers a lot more than they take away in public subsidy.
And that, by the way, brings me back to another of McAlester’s observations, that “The Fair Park Texas Foundation is the equivalent of the Central Park Conservancy.”

Wow. Not that I can tell. According to the Central Park Conservancy’s IRS 990 declaration and its annual report, the conservancy provides 75 percent of the cost of operating and maintaining the park against only 25 percent from public coffers.

Central Park is dotted with visitor centers and other attractions designed to welcome people in, not fence them out. It provides dozens of academic programs for students of all ages.

The Central Park Conservancy raises so much money for Central Park that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he has been able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on public parks in poor parts of his city with funds freed up by the conservancy’s generosity.

Even at that, the buildings in Central Park continue to incur the ongoing decay that all big old buildings must suffer, always. Therefore two years ago the conservancy launched a private $300 million fund-raising effort, over and above its normal outreach, to pay for those capital needs.

Compare that model with the one the mayor proposes for Fair Park, where the private entity to take over the park has raised nothing for Fair Park, not one dime, and says candidly it won’t even start trying to raise money until after the city has first put $75 million in bond money on the table, not to mention the annual $12 to $21 million management fee.

And that takes us to another matter, a subject that often is either not discussed at all or misrepresented — the history and track record of the Dallas philanthropic community where Fair Park is concerned. This is a question that has a major element of race in it, but it’s also just sort of a credit check on the philanthropic community in Dallas.

Last week an op-ed piece by Ellen Williams, Don Williams’ wife, was published in The Dallas Morning News,  in which she cited a 1966 study by a consultant advising the city on what to do about the black neighborhoods surrounding Fair Park. I have spoken with Ellen Williams in the past and found her to be a formidable researcher.

The 1966 study she cited advised City Hall: “All that is required is to eliminate the problem from sight. If the poor Negroes in their shacks cannot be seen, all the guilt feelings ... will disappear, or at least be removed from primary consideration.”

Eventually the philanthropic community gave up on the hateful concept of pushing the black neighborhoods away from Fair Park, only because the neighborhoods couldn’t be pushed far enough. Instead the city’s wealthy white establishment hit on a strategy of simply removing the city’s major cultural institutions entirely from Fair Park.

In the late 1970s Margaret McDermott, doyenne of the city’s arts patronage community, fished up yet another convenient consultant’s report, this one saying the same thing but more politely, that South Dallas was the wrong place for fine art. She kicked off the campaign that eventually enlisted the entire white establishment in the creation of the new arts district on the north side of downtown, now heavily populated by institutions that abandoned Fair Park to get there. 

And what did that get us? The AT&T Performing Arts Center in the arts district, supposedly a gift to the city, is now juggling something between $100 million and $150 million in debt, depending on the telling, and wants the city’s help paying it off at $1.5 million a year over the agreed upon annual city subsidy of $2.5 million.

How can we not worry that the same issues evident in that failure may haunt the Fair Park proposal as well? I speak of the all-too predictable Park Cities culture of building-pride, an edifice complex that puts shiny fancy real estate above content and responsible planning, not to mention a donor class that doesn’t donate what it promises.

The comeback is always that bringing up these things is resentful and dredging the past for the race card. Well, first of all, it’s more like resentful and dredging the present for the race card, but second and maybe more urgent, it’s what I said above — a simple credit check.

Everything the mayor’s plan promises is on the line. Not until the taxpayers agree to pay a very stiff annual management fee and even then not until after we also put $75 million in bond money on the table will the wealthy arts patrons try to raise a nickel. At that, they promise only a 50/50 match — stingy by Central Park standards.

If we look at what’s going on at the AT&T center, why would we assume those same patrons will raise even the nickel they promise? The wealthy arts philanthropy community has a track record going back decades of disdain for Fair Park based on racial phobia, and they don’t even raise the money they say they will to support their own new shiny arts park downtown.

Even if the mayor’s plan is backed, and hoping, if it is, that it will work out better than these fears predict, I still think there’s value in being honest about what people have said and why on this issue.
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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

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