When the State Fair of Texas Is on, Getting Rid of It Seems Like an Awful Idea

Last weekend when I made the first of what will be my many visits, The State Fair of Texas, now in the second week of its annual run and blessed by beautiful weather, was vibrant and jammed with happy human beings, not to mention livestock. I love the fair. I hate the fair. I hope the fair survives.

There are two plans knocking around City Hall for the future of Fair Park, the 277-acre exposition park that has been home to the fair for 129 years. Both call for new governance of the fair. Backers of one of the plans won’t admit it, but their plan really calls for phasing out the full-blown traditional fair.

Instead, that plan, backed by former Trammell Crow Company CEO Don Williams, calls for two things: “Putting the park back in the park” (explain in a second) and using the park as a catalyst to spur the economic redevelopment of surrounding poor neighborhoods.

Both are noble ideas. I wish we could just forget about both of them.

Putting the park back in the park is a concept I wrote about two years ago based on an interview with Peter Harnik, an author and nationally recognized expert on urban parks. Harnik pointed out that in designing big urban parks you really cannot have your cake and eat it, too. One park, he said, can’t house a state fair and also be an urban forest park.

“To be honest, from my end, thinking as hard as I can while we are talking,” he said, “I am not aware of any major, terrific, admired city park that does double duty as state fair grounds.

“Probably one of the most famous urban state fairs in the country is in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Minnesota State Fair,” he said. “It's got probably everything you've got and maybe even more so. But during the rest of the year it's kind of a nothing park. It might technically be a park, but it's nothing that anybody would think about.”

By the way, I did not interrupt my conversation with Harnik, who was very generous to share his time with me, to point out that the State Fair of Texas is 50 percent bigger than the Minnesota State Fair based on annual attendance. One of the few advantages of not being a native Texan is that I don’t have to be like that 24/7.

His point was that if you want an urban forest park, you’re going to have to kiss your state fair goodbye. And by the way, just so you’ll have some appreciation for my own expertise in this area, at various points in the past I have advocated doing stuff with Fair Park like nuking it, bulldozing it, et cetera.

I was just kidding, of course. Pretty much. Halfway. But Fair Park in general and the State Fair have always gotten on my nerves. Earlier this year a judge sanctioned and fined the State Fair for filing a lawsuit to try to shut down a citizen’s legitimate request for information about salaries and other financial matters (see below). Filing the lawsuit was a clumsy, heavy-handed arrogant behavior on the part of the State Fair’s way too reclusive mossback board of directors.

They always act like that, and acting that way always winds up making them look terrible. For the last couple of years there have been exposé stories and re-exposé stories about the salary of now retired State Fair president and CEO Errol McKoy, who raked in $828,000 in his last year. In the wake of the fair’s lawsuit humiliation, obviously it looks as if that was the kind of thing they wanted to hide.

But when Bloomberg Business looked at it a year ago, they pointed out that the State Fair of Texas dwarfs other state fairs around the country in attendance and revenue. Let’s say we figure a state fair is show business and in show business you pay your impresario based on the tickets he sells for you. If you compare the “house” or attendance McKoy ginned up for the State Fair of Texas with other state fairs and compare McKoy’s compensation with other state fair directors … mmm, it’s still up there. But not insanely so.

In other words, the State Fair could have sold this story and fought this round with way fewer broken bones than they took from that lawsuit they filed.

And then there is this: The State Fair of Texas is not merely a state treasure but a national treasure — three lovely weeks every fall where we celebrate our national origins as a nation of farmers and ranchers, even while we are eating fried lobster and staring at our cell phones. Sort of a miracle.

By the way, full disclosure, I have a family member who works at the fair, and I’m sure that colors my feelings some. I just love the fair. I just hate the fair.

I said above I wished we could forget those two noble notions in the Don Williams plan. I completely get the notion of turning Fair Park into a real park, but I would hate to see us slit the tendons of the State Fair in some way that would hasten a demise. I think that means no forest park. Sometimes we have to make choices.

I really get Williams’ desire to use the park to kindle the economy in the surrounding very poor neighborhoods. He wants to do it by enabling the redevelopment of surrounding commercial and residential neighborhoods. Through his Foundation for Community Empowerment, Williams has earned serious credibility over the years as an expert on the economic and social needs of the city’s racially segregated southern sphere.

It’s a good thought. It’s just too big a bet. If you could show me how killing the fair would bring prosperity to the bitterly poor precincts that have surrounded it for more than a half century, I’d be the first to say, “Shoot that sucker. Do it!”
Sacrificing the fair would be a small price to pay to lift families in an entire region of the city from poverty to prosperity. But how does it work? I don’t get it. Kill the fair, and people have even less incentive to visit Fair Park. And look at the downside. You’ve killed something that was nationally unique and valuable.

We have to make up our minds. Keep the fair. Kill the fair. I say keep. Like I say, it’s personal. I would weep if we really lost the State Fair of Texas.

But let’s say we agree, you and I. We vote to keep it. Then we have to own up to the consequences of our decision and agree that it can’t be a forest park because of the cake and eat it problem.

And then, yes, let’s do something about the governance. We need to get those SLAPP-suiters out and get people in there who understand their duties and their obligations to the public.

As for the CEO’s salary? Well, we have to go carefully there. Several years ago D Magazine called Errol McKoy “the nation’s highest paid carnie.” Right. Which is what you need. It’s a role that requires a strange amalgam of business sense and voodoo. So before we start offering $55,000 a year for the job, we need to make sure we can get a top business-wise voodoo artist to work for that.

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