Turns out, Errol McKoy didn't wake up Monday morning with any intention of announcing plans to turn Fair Park into a year-round destination complete with towering rides and rollering coasters. Matter of fact, he says he expected -- still does -- to hold "a massive press conference" in, oh, 18 months or so, during which he'll lay out the grand plan, which will include everything from a Dallas Summer Musicals-produced show to 26 rides permanently planted in the Midway.
Alas, the president of the State Fair of Texas spilled the beans a wee bit sooner than expected during a Monday press conference, where Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson toured the Green Line's Fair Park Station scheduled to open September 14. McKoy says he was asked how the Green Line was going to help Fair Park in the short term and the long run, and next thing he knew, he was talking about taking on Six Flags Over Texas.
"I felt a little bad about talking about it too much," McKoy told Unfair Park yesterday. "They were there to talk to Eddie Bernice Johnson about federal subsidies, and I saw the DART guys looking down at me ..." He laughed. "Well, I tried to be as brief as possible."
Nonetheless, the Big Tex is out of the bag -- but, as I mentioned Monday, McKoy's comments sounded like something he'd said two years ago, when he'd also promised to turn the Midway into a year-round, or at least summer-long, hot spot. Matter of fact, he says, Monday's announcement, such as it was, was simply a reiteration of 2007's promise -- one he says was slowed only "by the downturn in the economy, which pushed us from 2010 to 2012." That, he says, "is the key issue," because the additions to Fair Park will be paid for with money made from State Fair ticket sales.
"And we didn't do as well last year as we thought," he says, pointing out that ticket sales in '08 were about $29.5 million, with $5 million of that going toward the 500-foot-tall so-called Top of Texas Centennial Tower, which McKoy says will cost $11 million. "Our plans were pretty ambitious. We're not borrowing. We're having to accrue the money and put it in the bank and save it and buy the ride. But we started this two years ago with the Texas Skyway, which cost $5.5 million."
As I mentioned Monday, McKoy's plans can be traced back to 2003's Fair Park Comprehensive Plan, which offered page after page of suggestions for making Fair Park something other than an afterthought for most locals except during the State Fair in the fall. Noted the report's introduction, Fair Park "rivals in assets any of the best parks in the world," but they're largely wasted:
Despite its myriad virtues, Fair Park is not reaching its potential visitor capacity. On any given weekday, the park remains largely vacant. Many of the museums report attendance figures that are far below their goal levels and are struggling to stay in operation. Misperceptions about safety and access keep some visitors away, and the lack of visitors adds to the perception that the park is closed.
At this point, Fair Park lacks a cohesive identity. The absence of any significant green recreation space belies its very title as "park". Managing the park in a manner such that the wealth of events supports daily attendance -- rather than detracts from it -- is crucial to the life of Fair Park.
McKoy and Park Department officials wholeheartedly agree; hence, the longstanding plan to revitalize Fair Park, including the Esplenade fountain redo and the gate expansion at Grand Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. And this very weekend, matter of fact, Fair Park will play host to Artfest.
But all acknowledge there's work to be done -- and opening the Midway every day is but a part of that plan, McKoy says. And, look, he'd prefer if you didn't hold him to a strict time line -- economy and all.
"I think as you look at the next 10, 15 years, the Park Department will be pushing ahead with future bond programs that will create the funds to do the things outlined in the comprehensive plan," McKoy says. After the gate and fountain renovations, he says, "the next big effort will be the summer operation in 2012, and we're building the rides as we go. It's a building process that will go on for a number of years before we fulfill that overall dream. It's not a question of 'whether' but 'when': We don't know what this economy holds for us this year, but if things improve we'll get on track. 2012 is our current target date, but it could slide to '13."
Since Monday, McKoy's heard from plenty of skeptics who wonder how in the hell Fair Park will compete with Six Flags -- and how he can justify the $30 admission fee to which he referred earlier this week.
"Six Flags is more a point of reference," he says. "Time is our most precious commodity, and that's what were up against -- trying to get people to carve our a few hours to visit. And that's why this is a little less-time consuming than Six Flags. It fits today's busy families better." He says the State Fair folks commissioned a study that showed people spend an average of eight hours at Six Flags; McKoy is hoping Fair Park visitors find enough to justify a four-, five-hour visit.
"We want to be half of what Six Flags is because we'll have half of the time commitment," he says of the ticket price. "Their average visit is 8.5 hours, and we'll peg ours to four, four and half. Their admission is close to $60 on an adult ticket with tax, and we want to be half that."
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And so he's promising plenty -- not only a few signature rides, among them the Top of Texas Centennial Tower and the roller coaster and a water feature, but also those rides that are "part and parcel to Theme Park 101." And he's expecting to open up the entirety of the fairgrounds to include a special IMAX film for the Science Place, boat rides in the lagoon, tours of the Cotton Bowl -- whatever they can come up with until, one day in the distant future, the city can get some more bond money to create the so-called museum green referred to in the comprehensive report that might actually put the "park" back in Fair Park.
"We'll have more than you can consume," he says. "But, look, this whole thing has been a little bit premature. We weren't quite ready to talk about all the single elements. We'll have a massive press conference in a year and a half, and everyone will be invited."
Oh, and for those wondering why the State Fair of Texas doesn't simply extend its annual run to pocket a little extra dough to spend on those new rides, McKoy has this to say.
"Twenty-four days makes it the longest-running fair in the country," he says. "That's pretty much optimal. I think you hit a point of diminishing returns after that. Also, the auto show people need to move on, and our show begins to break down on us. We just can't hold everybody here that long. There are other fairs and trade shows and expositions people have to go to. We were at 11 days years ago, then went to 17, 18, and we've been at 24 for the last 16, 17 yeards. We did one 31-day fair in 1986, and that was just too long."