City Hall

Rawlings Pushes Plan for Privatized Fair Park

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings is doing everything in his limited power to make sure that Dallas Fair Park gets off of the city of Dallas' ledger. 

In Dallas' system, the mayor only enjoys two privileges outside of his single city council vote:  the power to set the council's agenda and the bully pulpit that comes with the title. During his time on the job Mike Rawlings has used these to do things like launching a citywide effort against domestic violence, pushing for a road to be built along the Trinity River's levees and starting a fight against the Exxxotica porn convention. 

Monday afternoon, Rawlings took to his city hall lectern to throw his weight behind the latest and greatest plan to cure what ails Fair Park, the 277-acre exposition grounds that host the beloved State Fair in the fall, and then sit mostly empty for 11 months a year.

"In the spring of 2013, during our annual Grow South meeting, I publicly announced the formation of a Fair Park task force with a hope for laying out a vision for what we all recognize is a park with a great untapped potential," Rawlings said Monday.

Rawlings tapped Walt Humann, the longtime Dallas civic bigwig, to head up the private foundation that the mayor hopes will take over the management of Fair Park.  The goal is to run the South Dallas fairgrounds something like the Dallas Zoo. The city would pay a management fee each year to the foundation, and the foundation would take care of Fair Park's grounds and make improvements in an attempt to unlock the park's unrealized value. Humann told the Dallas Park Board in April that Fair Park could be a $1 billion enterprise if only the people running it had a coherent vision for how to do so.

Critics of the plan have mocked the proposed Fair Park Foundation's organizational structure — Dallas City Councilor Philip Kingston has called it "dog breakfast" — and have accused Humann and the mayor of trying to shove the project down the park board and council's throat. Others, like former Trammell Crow CEO Don Williams, have argued for a competing vision of Fair Park that sees it become a park first, rather than a sea of asphalt parking lots surrounding decaying buildings.
Two weeks ago, five board members walked out of meeting with Humann because they didn't like the rules chairman Max Wells set for discussion of the Fair Park plan. A new discussion, and a park board vote that could send the Humann plan to the city council, is scheduled for August 4.
Faced with these growing headwinds, Rawlings and Humann want to dispel what Humann called the "myths" surrounding his plan to save Fair Park. The idea that he doesn't want Fair Park to be a park simply isn't true, Humann said. He wants the park's grounds to feature a park-within-a-park that would be a signature attraction for the area, something you would "bring out-of-town visitors to see."

Tiffinni Young, the council member who represents Fair Park, criticized Williams as an outsider and said she supported Humann and the mayor's plan.

"It's not about the mayor, it's not about me, it's not about Mr. Humann. It's about the next generation and doing what's right so we leave a legacy of love, a legacy of togetherness," she said.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young