The Latest Idea to Fix Fair Park: Make the City Go Away (but Leave Some Money)

With four former City Council persons, the ex-city manager and a loyal philanthropic supporter as members, the mayor's task force on Fair Park knew before its first meeting where the bones were buried. But how much dirt did they want to get on their hands?

Sorry, but the issue was never How did Fair Park get so run down? It was always How come the other six times we resolved to fix Fair Park it never happened?

Now that the task force has released its report and recommendations for dealing with the city's rambling, shambling, down-at-the-heels and down-in-the-mouth 277-acre exposition park, I'd say they got their hands just a little bit dirty. Not much. But in this town, a spoonful of honesty is better than none.

Last year Mayor Mike Rawlings set this up as a nine-member panel instructed to meet behind closed doors and figure out what to do with the 129-year-old park. Largely abandoned by the city's more hoity-toity cultural institutions over the last 20 years, home now to the State Fair for a little better than three weeks every fall, it is a sparsely occupied ragtag bazaar most of the rest of the year.

There's got to be a better way than that to use almost 300 acres of public land in the center of the city. Right? We have talked about this here a lot in the past. One of my ideas was nuking it, and I swear — swear! — it was a figure of speech. Of course I did not mean literally nuke it, because of too much radiation.

At one point I quoted a big national park expert who said there's not much you can do with a park that has a big fat State Fair hunkered down in the center of it. I suggested getting rid of the fair. Thank you for your comments on that one, as well, and, yes, I do understand where you want me to put that idea. Food for thought is all I ever intended, food for thought.

But what? What's your big idea? As it is, the park is this big unsolved problem that won't go away, like a bad boyfriend standing out in front of the house all night. Turn the hose on him?

The people the mayor chose to sit on the task force obviously were types he thought could figure it out, and I have to say I think he chose brilliantly: Linda Perryman Evans, longtime benefactor of Fair Park as president and CEO of the $690 million Meadows Foundation; former City Council members Craig Holcomb (East Dallas neighborhood type, 1983-'89), Diane Ragsdale (South Dallas civil rights activist, 1984-'93), Max Wells (North Dallas, "The Money," 1988-'97) and Alan Walne (North Dallas, "Even More Money," 1996-2003); former (some say still invisible) City Manager Mary Suhm; Mark Langdale (hotel developer, real estate lawyer, big W buddy); developer Jack Matthews (The Omni Hotel, now the Statler-Hilton, and he's a Canadian, go figure); and Jose Bowen (dean of the Meadows School for the Arts at SMU, sacrificial innocent person who turned out to be smart).

I have several very good sources familiar with their deliberations. They all paint the process in ways that are similar in these respects: 1) Many task force members, especially the old City Council cowboys and Indians, knew that the city puts on a task force production like this about Fair Park every so many years as an appeasement, sort of like sacrificing a goat, and not one thing ever comes of it. 2) Several of the cowboys and Indians knew why nothing came of the last one, carried out in 2003.

And here we come to what I personally think is the real nut of the entire conundrum of Fair Park and the puzzle at the heart of our life as a city. A Fair Park Task Force in 2003 went through this same exercise, slit the goat's throat and warbled to the moon in loincloths but also managed to cobble together a good many excellent proposals and deals, including a hard-fought compromise with the State Fair of Texas.

Think about it. Why does the State Fair want Fair Park to be lousy? It doesn't. If anything the State Fair has an interest in seeing City Hall ramp up its commitment. But in 2003 the State Fair told the task force that it will always need a whole lot of parking.

The national parks expert I told you about, the guy who said it's hard to have a real park with a State Fair in it, singled out the huge amount of tarmac on the periphery of the park, barren most of the year, as one of Fair Park's ugliest features. But the State Fair has to have that much parking somewhere. So a key concept in the 2003 proposal was construction of a vast underground parking facility paid for with city of Dallas bonds.

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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