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Unfair Park Exclusive: Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm Confirms City Is Looking at Privatizing Dallas Farmers Market, Fair Park

After 70 years of municipal control, it now sounds like City Hall could be handing over the management of the Dallas Farmers Market, as well as Fair Park, to the loving hands of the private sector.

City Manager Mary Suhm confirmed for Unfair Park today that the city is requesting proposals from private management organizations. Prominent restaurateur Janet Cobb told Unfair Park she has been in discussions with the city about running the downtown market. And Friends of Fair Park's president, Craig Holcomb, confirms he's trying to find a way to bring private money to Fair Park in order to turn it into a tourist attraction.

The farmers market property itself -- five city blocks near Interstate 30 between South Harwood and Cesar Chavez Boulevard downtown -- will remain under the ownership of the city, Suhm said. Suhm noted that any deal done at Dallas Farmers Market will be "similar to the zoo," referring to the Dallas Zoo, which was transferred to the control of the Dallas Zoological Society last year.

Ever since the zoo deal, Suhm said other organizations have sought day-to-day management for other city-owned institutions.

Unfair Park was unable to reach Fair Park officials, who will remain out of the office till Tuesday thanks to a furlough day tomorrow and the Monday holiday.

When reached by Unfair Park this evening,  Holcomb said that for the past couple of months he's heard whispers that perhaps restructuring Fair Park management and its operations might not be a bad idea. So, he said, a month ago he began talking with Fair Park officials and supporters and told them, as he put it: "This subject's going to come up, and either we can call the meetings and work with everybody, or people who don't know as much about running Fair Park as we do will take the ball and run with it, and it'll be a colossal mess and a waste of time."

Holcomb said he met with Suhm to discuss how much it costs to run Fair Park, but that, so far, has been the extent of their meetings concerning the subject. He said he plans to gather "10 to 15 people to look at the governance of Fair Park" before moving forward.

"The example I have used many times is: The first time Cirque du Soleil came to Fair Park, Eddie Hueston, the general manager at the time, had to use his own money to go to Canada to see if it was a proper fit for Fair Park, and then negotiate the deal," Holcomb said. "The city will never be able to spend money to do things like that. If you have the choice between keeping libraries open an extra half hour or going to Canada, you go with the libraries or hiring police officers or fixing potholes."

Holcomb, though, doesn't like the word "privatize." He said the idea is to get a "brand manager" at Fair Park -- someone who can go out and "find the next exhibit, the next show for Fair Park." But, indeed, he agrees: Fair Park's operations need to change -- as evidenced by the fact that Suhm at present is proposing cutting several positions at Fair Park, including a marketing manager.

"People need to feel comfortable with private money doing those things," Holcomb said. "Then, I think, you'd see more activity out there, more people coming. It'd be a tourist attraction. But it's in its infancy at this point."

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Parigi chef and partner Chad Houser, president of Dallas Farmers Market Friends, was familiar with the plan: "It's definitely something I'll be paying attention to."

Janel Leatherman, the city's administrator of the market, said she too knew the city is considering privatizing Dallas Farmers Market. But when asked how she felt about it, Leatherman had no response.

Janet Cobb, meanwhile, told Unfair Park she has been "asking questions" about a deal to run the Farmers Market.

Suhm said such a deal would be primarily about managing the market, not a sale of real estate, but she also said: "We're willing to look at anything and everything right now."

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