Thursday, February 29, 2024 Feb 29, 2024
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Fair Park

A Scathing Look at Fair Park’s History and Why Dallas Needs to Finally Fix the Park

A new report tells a difficult story about how the city and the State Fair ruined South Dallas and advocates for a new way forward.
By Peter Simek |
Josh Blaylock

The Foundation for Community Empowerment, which is led by Don Williams, former chairman and chief executive of the Trammell Crow Company, has been advocating for a new approach to revitalizing Fair Park for years. The foundation has commissioned studies, tangled with the State Fair over open records request, and publicly backed Fair Park privatization. Now it has released a new report that takes an unflinching and long-view look at Fair Park, the State Fair, and how the relationship between the two embody so many of the challenges facing the city.

The full report, which runs 29 pages, is well worth a read. In it, you’ll find a comprehensive breakdown of the city’s comparable disadvantages to other cities (“On a list of demographics crucial to city health, the City of Dallas ranks at the bottom of American cities, just above Detroit”), a history of the city’s management of Fair Park, the devastating effects that has had on the surrounding neighborhoods, and a look at State Fair operations and the fair’s cost to the city.

The highlight is a low-light, a chilling passage from a 1966 report commissioned by the city that shows, in a nut shell, how historical attitudes about race and poverty led to a systematic disenfranchisement of the primarily African-American communities in South Dallas. After the 1966 report found that visiting Fair Park created “intense emotional discomfort in middle-class white residents of Dallas,” it concluded that “The solution for all of these conflicts, at least in terms of Fair Park’s location, is simple. All that is required is to eliminate the problem from sight. If the poor Negroes in their shacks cannot be seen, all the guilt feeling revealed above will disappear, or at least be removed from primary consideration.”

The report concludes that “If all the land around Fair Park were bought up and turned into paved, lighted, fenced parking lot, would that solve the problem?”

And that’s exactly what Dallas did. Beginning in the late 1960s and continuing even up to a few years ago, it purchased land around the park, leveled houses, created fences, parking lots, and vacant lots in the community. As Jim Schutze writes in his post today about the new report, that attitude determined the future of South Dallas:

The FCE report cites this history as preamble for everything that has happened since and continues to take place in the area around Fair Park. From 1970 to 2013, the number of housing units in the whole city went up by 72 percent, but housing in the area around Fair Park went down by more than 50 percent.

Between 1999 and 2014, property values in the whole city increased four times faster than values near Fair Park. The area around Fair Park is pocked by bare lots where houses have been scraped. Just east of Fair Park in the Mill City neighborhood, a survey by Habitat for Humanity found 47 percent of the housing was substandard.

A point that the FCE report hammers home with particular force is that none of this was or is inevitable. None of it had to happen. None of this depressing process has to continue to take place today.

Why drag up all this uncomfortable history? Well, the report argues, it is because if we don’t understand that history and see how it continues to impact the way the city and State Fair manage Fair Park, we won’t be able to recognized the real problems facing Fair Park nor will we be able to identify the correct solutions to those problems.

A big part of the problem is a State Fair whose board includes exactly zero members from the surrounding communities, though nearly half come from the Park Cities and North Dallas’ council district 13. The State Fair’s operations also cost those communities dearly — and cost the city of Dallas an estimated $20 million per year. The report argues that the State Fair’s economic benefit to the city is continually overstated by State Fair officials, that the opportunity costs of allowing the State Fair extensive control over Fair Park is enormous, and that the State Fair’s lease with the city is in default. And the report doesn’t mince words:

From its admirable origins of organizing a fair, carnival and agricultural programs, the State Fair has evolved into a money-making machine whose internal dynamics brook no change or criticism (like a church or fraternity disregarding sexual abuse or a minerals company covering up unlawful strip-mining and ecological damage). The result is to exploit a public asset and public funding for private gain and wreak havoc on a defenseless neighborhood and Dallas taxpayers. Inside this system, its participants see themselves as virtuous, and their operations are disguised as meritorious, despite public harm. Stuck in defending the status quo, management and its chummy executive committee play on nostalgia for a bygone era, while disdaining facts, best practices and the larger public good.

So where do we go from here? Well, there’s already a road map: the city-adopted 2003 Hargreaves Plan that laid out a general framework for improving Fair Park. This new report argues that the three bidders gunning for private takeover of Fair Park should use that plan as a starting point and aim towards these six outcomes:

Deliver on the promise to build a great park. Build a crown jewel for Dallas. Attract visitors from around the world. Reinvigorate Dallas’s economy and Fair Park neighborhoods.

Hold the State Fair corporation accountable. Request a forensic audit of the State Fair corporation and renegotiate the footprint and operations so as to accommodate the highest and best use of Fair Park and contributions to its neighborhoods and Dallas taxpayers. And the State Fair should consent in advance to approve whichever team the City selects.

Enter into a responsible public-private partnership. Secure a best-in-class team able to transform Fair Park from a decaying grand dame into a vibrant center of culture, art, and commerce—one that over time will become financially self-sufficient—while preserving and repurposing the vacant historical buildings.

Open the doors for growth in the urban core. The “park premium” of a signature park can transform blighted neighborhoods into prosperous, tax-generating, inclusive communities enabling the urban core to grow south and east.

Reunite our neighborhoods. Connect Fair Park not only to its immediate neighborhoods but also to the growing and prosperous neighborhoods of Downtown, Deep Ellum, the Cedars, Uptown, the Trinity, and White Rock Lake. Repair the wounded urban core around I-30 and I-45.

Invest in Dallas’s future. Provide the funds to rejuvenate Fair Park and attract park-compatible tenants. Attract a young and highly skilled workforce. Build a great park that serves as the economic engine for jobs, education, small businesses, innovators, the arts, entertainment and recreation.



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