Last night, the organizations appealing for city approval to control Fair Park got to hear from the ZIP codes that their project will impact. The prevailing sentiment from the residents who attended: listen to us about our neighborhoods.
There were about 100 or so people in the below-ground auditorium of the Hall of State for the meeting, in a space that flooded during heavy rains last year. The deferred maintenance on the decaying art deco buildings also got a fair amount of play; fixing all that’s wrong at Fair Park is estimated to cost $250 million, and there hasn’t been a plan provided that explains how that’ll be raised and then spent.
Many of the concerns voiced Thursday night revolve around communication. As many speakers noted, the history of Fair Park is an ugly one of racism, displacement, lies, and failed promises. Eminent domain took homes. Not until 1953 did the State Fair open its doors to black attendees, and even then the vendors often refused serve them.
South Dallas activist Willie Mae Coleman, who has lived in the Frazier neighborhood her whole life, stood at the microphone and said, “The Fair Park was something we lived and died for to just get in on those grounds. I want you all to bring something here that we can be proud of and enjoy. Life is too short. I am 84 years old, and I am telling you, it sounds good. And good can come from it. … I really want to see these things for my grandkids.”
There is a dark history, but there is also hope.
Fair Park First, the governing board of mostly Dallas residents, gave a presentation to start the meeting. The group’s president, the architect Darren James, addressed some of the Park Board concerns from last week’s introductory briefing, saying that the board had changed its bylaws to add more seats to include people from the immediate neighborhood and others who can “augment fundraising efforts.” The board also defined the duration of the appointments.
Peter Zingoni, a VP at Spectra, the managing partner, detailed the company’s international profile and spoke of how it plans to generate more revenue within the park. Biederman Redevelopment Ventures is updating the park’s master plan and designing a community park. The company’s vice president, Ben Donsky, said the community park would be located beyond the fence line and might actually be more than one. “If we don’t succeed with the community park, we won’t succeed with Fair Park,” he said.
But the legal procurement process kept Fair Park First from meeting with residents prior to city staff announcing that it had won the bid two weeks ago. Judging from the 30-plus speakers, it doesn’t appear that the board has made much headway in its outreach campaign. Cydney Walker, a South Dallas resident and the host of the online talk show Coffee & Politics 101, urged the groups to be present. “Everyone who talks about community, you all do not come into our neighborhoods and talk to us,” she said to applause. “We normally are neglected by saying you can’t find talent with us. [I have a] master’s degree. Former registered dietitian. I’ve been out here stomping on these streets for 45 years, and nobody has ever knocked on my door. But I’ve seen doors disappear for efforts like this.”
Anna Hill, the president of the Dolphin Heights Neighborhood Association, called for the city manager to release a comparative analysis of the three bids. (It’s worth noting, however, that state law bars the winning contract from being publicly released until after the City Council OKs it.) She asked the groups to detail how neighboring communities would benefit from the privatization. Would there be job training? Internships? She also requested someone from the immediate neighborhood be added to the board. “Who if anyone will represent our neighborhoods?” she asked.
Other residents spoke of the blight that surrounds Fair Park. Pastor Billy Island, of the nearby nonprofit Outcry in the Barrio, spoke of seeing the parking lots from his backyard. They sit unused most of the year, sometimes occupied by police or fire training. The organization helps about 1,000 drug and alcohol addicts a year, and he said he’d like to see them given the opportunity to find jobs in the community. “Eventually we’re gonna have to trust,” he said. “What’s going on now? What’s happening now? If it stays the same, there’s no change.”
Representatives from the area’s nonprofits—Frazier Revitalization Inc., CitySquare, Revitalize South Dallas Coalition—asked to be included in the discussions going forward and offered their knowledge and resources. Craig Holcomb and Matt Wood, both affiliated with Friends of Fair Park, spoke in favor of the deal, saying that it lined up with numerous other master plans over the years: that Fair Park would get greenspace and be managed by a nonprofit. The difference, Holcomb said, is now that there is a will to get it done.
Many speakers called for a strategy to teach young residents trades, particularly as it comes to performing maintenance on the buildings. Ken Smith, the president of Revitalize South Dallas, warned the groups of the infrastructure woes in the area; high-speed internet didn’t reach the community until 2017. “Don’t assume you can come in here and hit the ground running with the very poor infrastructure we have in South Dallas,” he said.
The two-hour meeting was a plea from residents who want to be heard. The silence creates skepticism, and many of the speakers echoed the frustration of not being involved in the discussions leading up to this point. Part of that is dictated by the state law around the procurement process that the city used, but there’s nothing stopping the groups from knocking on doors now.
The members of the Park Board sought to reassure the public that they had been heard; all the questions were recorded and would be answered and made available online at a later date. Some of their public comments showed that Fair Park First still has questions to answer with the board, too.
Jesse Moreno, the Park Board member for District 2, said after the meeting that he still had some questions about the contract terms—remember, Moreno was the member who grilled Spectra about how their comparably low operational costs pencil out—but that the ultimate decision wasn’t up to him. “It’s not up to me,” he said. “It’s up to the community. And if the community isn’t for it, then I can’t vote for it.”
Member Paul Sims, of District 14, said he still has some concerns about the contract, which he promised to voice at Thursday’s meeting. “All the wonderful words spoken here tonight are worthless if they are not in this contract,” he said. “From what I’ve seen, I have concerns with that.”
There were also allegations that members of the board were planning to do business with Spectra. Dan Biederman, the president of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, is on the board. (He has volunteered to recuse himself if there is any appearance of conflict.) As is John Proctor, the president of the Regional Black Contractors Association. Spectra has made clear their intention to reach out and work with minority contractors.
Speaking after the meeting, Councilman Kevin Felder said that the board makeup was a concern for him. “I think it’s clear to me that the make up of the board is not to the community’s satisfaction. As a matter of fact, there’s no one from the immediate community on the board. That’s going to change, I guarantee you that,” he said. Then he brought up Councilman Dwaine Caraway, who earlier that day pleaded guilty to accepting nearly half a million dollars in bribes. “And it’s what I heard from the community. They said there was some people on the board that intend to do business with Spectra. We just had a major situation that happened. One of my colleagues was indicted and pleaded guilty to corruption; this is how it starts when you have something like that. That is the fuse, and to light that fuse is how we have corruption going on in the city of Dallas. We have to stop that immediately.”
The saga continues. The next Park Board meeting is scheduled for Thursday. They plan to vote by September 20.