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It Sure Sounds Like Most of the Council Is Ready to Privatize Fair Park

The City Council's first briefing on the plan generated a few questions, but most seemed to be in support of the idea.
Bret Redman

There were few complaints during the City Council’s first go-round of the plan to privatize Fair Park. Earlier this month, the Park Board recommended a contract that would hand operations of the park over to a global company named Spectra, a Comcast subsidiary that manages hundreds of event spaces and parks throughout the country. On Thursday, some council members even offered their full-throated support for it, including Kevin Felder, whose district includes Fair Park.

“I want everyone to know that I am in full support of Spectra and this contract,” Felder said. “Not only do you have the experience, but you outperformed on the bidding process. You far exceeded the other contracts, so you should have it.”

The two other bids, from Oak Cliff developer Monte Anderson and ex Hunt Oil Co. chairman Walt Humann, asked for about $10 million more from the city annually to pay for their full operating budgets. Spectra wants just $35 million over the next 10 years; it’s an annual cost savings of about $8 million, and the company has never had to be removed from a contract for failing to meet its goals. As Mayor Mike Rawlings noted, both competitors took out an ad in the the Dallas Morning News in support of the bid that beat theirs.

Spectra will receive a set management fee, but the contract stipulates that any excess revenue be returned to Fair Park. The company’s goal is to make the space used all year by harnessing its existing relationships with promotors and booking agencies.

The company plans to spend $1 million over the 20-year life of the contract on internships and scholarships for students in South Dallas, also giving them opportunities to apprentice or intern within the park. Peter Sullivan, the general manager who will move to Dallas from Singapore to manage Fair Park, called it a “crime” that the Cotton Bowl was sitting unused while nearby high schools had to go play ball elsewhere. In addition to managing the Singapore Sports Hub, he has operated Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and the University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Cardinals play.

“We are a company that supports high school sports and football,” he said. “At the University of Phoenix Stadium, we had 23 high school graduations. … We weren’t making a lot of money. We were making a little money, but we were giving back to the community.”

There are some things that will need to be ironed out. The specific metrics that Spectra must meet each year will likely need to be put to paper before the Council will approve the deal. Fair Park First, the governing board that will oversee Spectra, was under the impression it could have a year to gather metrics to inform those goals: how much it fundraised in year one, how many visitors came to Fair Park, how much revenue it generated, the necessary capital improvement plan. The mayor said all that information was available and asked Fair Park First to establish what those metrics actually are before the Council signs off.

There are still questions about the makeup of the governing board, even though it reconfigured its bylaws to require anyone who stands to benefit from a vote or a discussion to recuse themselves. There are three such people on the board that this applies to: John Proctor, the president of the Dallas Black Contractors Association, an organization that will likely have members interested in working within Fair Park; Terry Kittleson, the president and CEO of nonprofit In The City For Good, which is in charge of public outreach; and Dan Biederman, the New York-based president of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, which is designing a park and rewriting the master plan. Biederman has already offered to resign if the city deems his presence on the board to be a conflict.

Councilman Philip Kingston, who represents downtown and East Dallas’ District 14, had a problem with all the possible conflicts. “You’re starting from a position where you have to do too much explanation,” he said.

There were also requests for existing tenants to have their contracts extended. Darren James, the president of Fair Park First, said the group was meeting with the organizations and favored a case-by-case negotiation over which to extend and for how long. All of the existing contracts—except for the State Fair of Texas and TxDOT, which owns the Parry Avenue parking lot—would be transferred to Fair Park First to be overseen. Peter Zingoni, a VP at Spectra, has said the company does not plan to remove organizations from Fair Park.

Some questioned whether Spectra was ready to deal with the maintenance demands of the decaying buildings. During public comment, Dick Davis, the executive director of Texas Discovery Gardens, held up a stack of 287 maintenance requests the organization has submitted to the city in the last year. Fair Park First would be responsible for those, and James said the organization had added another $125,000 to the maintenance line item than the city spent last year.

Spectra is also conducting a plan to handle the deferred maintenance on the aging art deco buildings, which is expected to cost about $160 million to complete.

Still, the core of the bid—that Spectra would manage the operations going forward, that Biederman will build a park somewhere in or around the grounds, and that Fair Park First would make sure everything was successful—seemed to have the support from most council members. In fact, Biederman has been asked to have designs for a park finalized by spring. The Park Board requested that his company begin seeking permits within three years and begin construction within 18 months of that date. It behooves the Council to move quickly. (The park is expected to cost $3 million per acre, but it’s not clear how large it will be.)

Council member Rickey Callahan, of Pleasant Grove, said he had “critical questions” about the contract. His Park Board representative, Yolanda Williams, was one of two who voted against recommending the deal. His main concern seemed to be about the tenants, but he also said he wanted to be sure there were “guardians against malfeasance” on the Fair Park First board. Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, of North Dallas, asked for a copy of the contract between Spectra and Fair Park First.

But, by and large, the meeting has followed the narrative of this iteration of a privatization plan for Fair Park. Most public officials and residents seem ready to get the thing done.