I’m going to steal and modify a metaphor that Jim Schutze uses in his column today about the latest shenanigans involving Fair Park and the State Fair of Texas:
Imagine you own a business and you rent an office in a building. Every month you pay rent, and the cost of that rent includes a portion of the building’s overall common area operating expenses, a pretty standard condition in commercial office leases. But what if you decide you didn’t want to pay your portion of the operating expenses? What if, in fact, over the course of a ten-year lease, you never paid those operating expenses? What do you think the landlord would do?
Simple: you’d get kicked out of your space — and probably a lot sooner than the time it took to rack up ten years-worth of unpaid rent. And after you got evicted, you’d probably get sued by the landlord, who, understandably, would want the back rent you failed to pay as part of the terms of the lease.
Now let’s translate that situation to Fair Park and the State Fair. Per the 2003 contract the State Fair signed with the city of Dallas, which still owns Fair Park (even though the city is planning on handing the park’s operations over to a private entity), the State Fair is obligated to share a portion of its profits to fund the upkeep and continued maintenance of Fair Park’s historical buildings and grounds. Think of it as the State Fair’s common area operating expense. When the city negotiated its contract with the fair, it asked the fair to spend money on keeping up the historic campus. The State Fair agreed that that seemed fair enough, and signed the contract.
However, for 14 years, the State Fair has managed to avoid paying the maintenance cost. How could that happen? Robert Wilonsky had a column over the weekend that goes into the messy details, which essentially boil down to the fair’s usual obfuscation and its good ol’ boy relationship to the city.
Schutze takes it from there, and writes that what may be even more depressing than the fact that the State Fair should have contributed as much as $100 million over the past decade to the upkeep of Fair Park’s art deco buildings is the fact that city officials have struck a new deal with the fair that turns a blind eye to that history of negligence. Instead, the fair says it will start to contribute some money for improvements in the park out of a fund it will continue to control. City staff sees this as a win, the pauper at the gate finally getting the local baron to drop some shillings into his tin cup (with the baron then telling the pauper how to spend them).
It isn’t really news that the State Fair has walked all over — and continues to walk all over — the city. This all came up last year when the city was trying to hand over the keys to Fair Park to a private entity headed by former-Hunt Oil chairman Walt Humann. But here’s what really gets me.
Last year, during that debate, Humann and his backers on the council said again and again that the reason Fair Park was in such bad shape was that the city had failed to invest sufficiently in the maintenance and upkeep of the park. In fact, Humann’s plan called for the city to increase the amount of tax dollars spent on the park each year, as well as to kick in more millions via the upcoming bond election — a bond election that will ask residents to approve perhaps as much as a $1 billion just to maintain all the other needs — from streets to cultural facilities — the city can’t afford to keep up.
During these reprimands of the city’s neglect of Fair Park, the tone was admonishing, at times almost penitential. The city had been a bad boy, and it was time to receive its fiscal punishment. As for the State Fair? There wasn’t much to talk about there. They had a contract and that contract was nonnegotiable. But maybe we could ask them nicely to be a better tenant.
This attitude — that the city of Dallas is a petulant little child, that it lacks a basic capacity to meets its many obligations — floats around a lot in this city, and it often surfaces in the conversations surrounding major projects and issues, from Trinity River to DART. It is an attitude that casts city governance as an impediment to progress or as the source of Dallas’ woes. Great things for Dallas can only happen when the city cedes its control of all the responsibilities it obviously can’t handle to private entities — the adults in the room. Whether it is building a toll road in the floodway or blindly tying the future of a DART to a billion dollar investment in a failed transit strategy, the city is told that its role is to get out of the way and let the mature adults handle matters. Then, those adults run hog wild with Dallas’ residents tax dollars.
To be fair, as Schutze’s column points out, often its the city and city staff that help perpetuate this adolescent persona. City staff has somehow talked itself into a position in which forgiving a decade worth of the State Fair’s back rent is seen as a win for the city. The deal staff has worked out with the State Fair shows city staff negotiating from a position of cowardice, which is somewhat understandable. The State Fair, after all, is headed by some of the most powerful and influential people in this city. Perhaps more significantly, the power of the State Fair is buttressed by public opinion. You can see it whenever it is suggested that the city change the rules about how the State Fair operates in Fair Park. The comments to the posts fill up with angry fairgoers who fear that somehow their beloved fair is being monkeyed with.
But this cowardice is not a failure of the institution of local government, nor is it indicative of that government’s shortcomings. It is simply an indication of the lack of conviction in our local leadership — a lack of conviction that stems from the tendency among some of our elected public officials to discount or dismiss the value and role of the very municipal governments or governmental bodies which they lead. If the city is often seen as a child — that it can’t handle the responsibilities of managing itself — it is because the public officials we have elected to run the city act like children who shirk those responsibilities.
However, this doesn’t have to be the case this time. This latest situation in Fair Park is about as cut and dry as its gets. No one is saying right now that the fair needs to change, or reduce its footprint, or move. Rather, it has come to light that the State Fair has failed to follow through on its obligations to the terms of its contract contract with the city. As a result, Fair Park, which should be the crown jewel in city’s park system, is quickly rotting-out before our eyes.
The State Fair should pay its back rent. It’s that’s simple. And if it doesn’t, the city should tear up the contract and start the negotiations afresh.