When the Trinity Park Conservancy announced last month that it had hired a new CEO, I didn’t exactly tweet warm wishes to the guy.
The Conservancy, which is working to build the 200-acre Harold Simmons Park in the Trinity River floodway, had been led for four years by Brent Brown, an architect, city planner, and urban designer. The new guy, Tony Moore, has an undergraduate business degree and operated a park called A Gathering Place, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for four years. Before that, he was chief operations officer of a zoo in Tampa for two years. And from 2000 to 2016, he worked at SeaWorld, starting as an executive assistant and rising to director of culinary revenue.
I tweeted: “Trying to decide. Next time I go to Harold Simmons Park, should I get a Seven Seas Food & Beverage Sampler Lanyard to save 10%, or should I spring for the all-day dining pass so I can eat and drink as often as once every hour for one low price?”
When I got him on the phone last week, I didn’t start with the SeaWorld stuff, though we did get around to that. Instead, I began with a quiz to test his knowledge of Trinity River history:
The Trinity Quiz
TIM ROGERS: We’re going to start with a three-question quiz. Question No. 1: what was the H.A. Harvey Jr.?
TONY MOORE: I’m flunking on the first question right away.
ROGERS: That was a stern-wheel steamboat that made it from Galveston all the way to Dallas in 1893 on the Trinity River. Only twice has the river been navigated from Galveston. The first time was in 1868. Take a guess how long it took.
MOORE: About a week?
ROGERS: One year and four days. And that wasn’t a question. That was just a little fun fact for you. Alright question No. 2: in what year did we celebrate the straightening of the Trinity River in Dallas?
MOORE: I’m batting terribly here.
ROGERS: Come on, you got to get a decade here, at least. You can go 10 years either direction, and I’ll give you credit.
MOORE: Wow. So I assume that would require a fair amount of technology. So I’m gonna say that happened in the 1930s.
ROGERS: Oh, very good! 1928. And that was after, of course, it had flooded in 1908. I can’t remember how many people got killed. [Ed: five people lost their lives in the flood.] That was our response to it. Alright third question. And this one is much more recent history. What was the Dallas Wave?
MOORE: The Dallas Wave is an expression of sports when the Cowboys play and after a touchdown is scored. Yeah, a sense of unified expression commonly used. And that is a reality, to some degree.
ROGERS: [laughing] Well, I guess I have to give you credit for that. But that was a pretty tricky answer. No, man. The Dallas Wave was that whitewater feature the city built in the river. It cost about $4 million, and then the city figured out that it was against federal law to make the river unnavigable upriver. Now we’re spending $2 million to tear it out.
MOORE: I did hear about it. Was it already out? I thought they already took sections of it out?
ROGERS: Yeah, I think parts of it are out. You know, there’s a bunch of concrete and stuff they got to get out of there. So you had heard of it?
MOORE: I have heard of it. Not by name, but by lack of accomplishment perhaps. By reputation.
How SeaWorld Compares to the Trinity
ROGERS: Tony, you got kids, right?
MOORE: I do. 10 and 6 years old.
ROGERS: What did you tell them? How did you describe your new job and what it was that you were moving the family to Dallas for?
MOORE: Tim, I’ll be brutally honest with you. That was one of the toughest days for me, when I told them. They absolutely love Tulsa. Tulsa has been just so welcoming to my family. They like their schools. They like their friends. And when we told them we were going to Dallas, it did not go over well.
ROGERS: But how would you describe to a 10-year-old what you’re going to be doing at the Trinity Park Conservancy?
MOORE: My kids have some acclimation. They followed me from the zoo, and they’re used to being in park environments. They are very involved here at A Gathering Place in Tulsa. So they get it from a product point of view. And certainly we told them that I have an opportunity to be a part of a special project in Dallas, similar to A Gathering Place, that will bring people together and have fun. And, of course, they ask, “Does it have slides? Does it have rides? Is it going to be fun?” It’s going to be fun. Their interpretation is aligned with their experiences here at A Gathering Place.
ROGERS: Tony, the Morning News, in its “welcome to Dallas” piece on you, called you a “lifelong parks guy.” Am I being cynical when I say that you should have been called a “lifelong amusement parks guy”?
MOORE: Yeah, I think the amusement park is a real part of it, but I think it goes beyond that, and I think if folks from the outside, when they categorically represent amusement parks, it conjures up a bunch of rides and stuff, and people eating popcorn, and that’s it. You know, it’s a business. It’s a for-profit business. It’s a safety business. It’s a guest experience business. It’s a revenue generating business. It’s an emotional outlet. And so it goes a little bit more than that. While I have worked at parks, I’ve worked at water parks. I’ve worked at marine parks, where it’s steeped in conservation. I’ve worked for zoos that were city-run assets, and, again, conservation was at the forefront of that. I have been a part of new acquisitions and mergers. I have been a part of building and constructing, from $50 million attractions to $150 million parks. There was so much commonality in an experience where someone goes from a park and enjoys an environment, and whether it’s a public park or a paid park, it’s people going to a park and enjoying it. So I think to answer your question, from a general perspective, not understanding the nature of the beast, someone could certainly say that, and that would be understandable. But I think, after understanding the nature of the operations and the diversity—you know, there are guys that all they do is operate Six Flags. And that’s all they know. I think it’s also worth pointing out that I was in the Orlando market, the vacation destination of the world. And it’s all first-class parts, from quality point of view and the maintenance point of view and upkeep point of view and the programming that comes with it. So it’s a bit of experience learned from operating these parks over a 30-year span.
ROGERS: That sounds like a long way of saying I shouldn’t freak out too much when I hear that a guy from SeaWorld with a business degree is coming in to run what I see as a nature project.
MOORE: No, you should not for several reasons. The difference between a SeaWorld and a Six Flags—they’re a conservation company. They rescue and rehabilitate more animals than anyone else in the world. I just didn’t tell that story quite well. So the mindset for conservation is a great foundation for me to build on for the appreciation of the natural world that we live in. And also, being a SeaWorld park, water is at the very center of it. And not just water as in ocean water, but water is the habitat and the environment that supports that. In addition to that, Tim, if someone just says this is a SeaWorld guy—and I know there was a point where I was a SeaWorld guy—but I’ve operated zoos, and the last five years, man, I ran a public park that turned out to be all right.
ROGERS: Well, I’m not going to let you off the hook on that. You can’t compare the kind of water involved in a SeaWorld with the kind of water that we’re talking about in a floodplain that covers 800 square miles maybe. It’s the same molecule. But that’s really different water.
MOORE: You’re absolutely right. But, dude, we were going out on rivers rescuing manatees and understanding river habitats and have environmental initiatives that involve rivers as well. So it’s a little more than that, Tim.
What He Brings to Dallas From Tulsa
ROGERS: Let’s talk about A Gathering Place in Tulsa. I’ve read that one of the cool things about hiring you here is that you worked with the landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburg in Tulsa. And that same firm is involved here in Dallas. But correct me on my timeline here if I’m wrong. Weren’t most of the building and design—wasn’t that all done by the time you got to A Gathering Place?
MOORE: No. When I got there, it was all dirt. The project itself and the design was probably about 60 to 70 percent completed. My role, to be honest, Tim, I wasn’t the guy that was running all the construction companies. My job was to look at the plan, to look at the design, and make sure it made sense from a guest interaction point of view, where the guest meets the product and how wide your sidewalks are, what’s the coefficient of friction on the floor, the slopes, the type of attractions. Do we have the right mix of slides and swings? We made some changes. But you also have to be careful. You can’t come into a project that’s almost 70 percent done and change it all. You know, that would just be price overrun and would not be a good thing. But I had a chance to work on the construction and design of it.
ROGERS: You said it was all dirt. So that project was 100 acres?
MOORE: Yeah, 70 acres open. It’s 100 acres. We’re still building the last 30 right now.
ROGERS: That was all done on private land with essentially one donor. The Kaiser Family Foundation tossed in $350 million to get the thing going. So did that project even involve the Army Corps of Engineers?
MOORE: Yeah, it did, though not to the extent of this Dallas project. Obviously, we’re a park on the river [A Gathering Place], and we have a 5-acre bump-out that’s in the river, and currently we’re working with the city on a bridge that’s also on the river. So we had over 80 donors that was a part of this project, and we worked with the Army Corps of Engineers. We did have some work with them, but nothing to the degree that will be involved in Dallas.
ROGERS: We’ve seen renderings that Van Valkenburgh has produced for the Simmons Park. I look at those things, and, knowing that the Army Corps’ first mission is don’t let people die, which means don’t ever slow the water flow between the levees, all these renderings look to me like they’re impractical. And every time that objection has been raised by media or whoever, we’ve been told, “Well, it’s an iterative process.” That word gets used a lot. It’s an iterative process. As in, what you see is not going to be the final product. Are you prepared to have the iterations that we’ve seen so far be tossed out?
MOORE: You know, Tim, I am anxiously waiting to get onboard April 15, where I can fully jump in. I’ve seen some renderings, and I’ve been in some discussion, but I have not really had a chance to deep dive. You know, you bring up an interesting point and a valid point. You’re building a park on a potential floodplain, right? And so understanding the dynamics and getting the counsel from the Army Corps from a safety point of view. We’re not going to do anything that’s not safe. So I think we’ll get to a happy medium. I’m anxious to learn and to better understand, and I don’t want to speak out of turn and ignorantly represent it. But I have confidence in Michael Van Valkenburgh. They’ve done parks on waterways and rivers before, so they have some knowledge going in there, some expertise. And obviously the Army Corps are the best. They know what they’re doing. So, you know, good intelligence and sound judgment. I think we’ll be able to put together. But I personally have to have a deeper understanding before I can competently speak with authority on that.
JEAMY MOLINA: [The Conservancy’s director of communications was on the call and popped in here.] A lot of that is really outdated, and we haven’t put out any new information. I think in the coming weeks, especially with the donation of the land at 505, you’ll see new things coming out from Michael Van Valkenburgh that are not anything that anyone has seen before.
What Happens Next With Harold Simmons Park
ROGERS: I keep hearing that $110 million for the park has been raised. That includes the initial gift from the Simmons family. So 60 on top of the 50 as has been raised. The 50 was originally donated with some contingencies about how quickly the rest of the money was raised. Where do we stand with that now?
MOLINA: I’ll jump in here because Tony hasn’t been involved to the extent that you want that question answered. We talk to the Simmons family on a regular basis, and they know where we’re at in the process, and they’re onboard with everything that’s going on. They are giving us the money on a yearly basis. And so we’ll continue to update them. I think it’s every six months, as to where we’re at. And we just keep moving forward with them.
ROGERS: What’s going on with the old state jail building? What’s the current thinking on how that thing is going to be used?
MOLINA: We picked up Weiss/Manfredi from New York, and as part of that, they built out a team under them of different designers. One of the one of the really great team that we picked up was Colloqate Design, out of New Orleans. There are design justice firm. What they’ve done in the past, some examples are removing monuments that don’t necessarily need to be there anymore because of history that it just isn’t relevant. So we’re working with them to do a complete community outreach on what this building is. We had a first listening session with people that work at Lew Sterrett because you can’t ignore the fact that we’re sitting across the street from them. People that work there. People that had been incarcerated in 106. People that work in the re-entry fields to figure out what this building meant to them, what it meant to Dallas, how we have to honor that and how we have to move past it. And we’re going to continue that. Part of that was to do design justice training with all of our staff, our board, people from the community. We had LGC members on there. We’re reaching out to potential users, community users, affiliated users to figure out what it is that we’re going to do with this building. So our No. 1 step is talk to the community, figure out what they need and want, how can we get this done. And they’ll work with Weiss/Manfredi to build up the design. But it will be a gateway for us into the park.
MOORE: The building and the location are just phenomenal, the proximity to the park. I’ve had a chance to see the building. From a visual point of view, I just see that as a huge asset and a huge engagement point, a window into the park.
ROGERS: What’s the first thing that we’re going to see, and how far away is it?
MOLINA: The first thing we’re going to see is ground being broken on 505, the east overlook. We’re talking a little bit over 5 to 6 acres of city-owned land right there at that area. We are in communication already with the city on permitting and all of those types of processes. So we’re hoping mid-2022.
ROGERS: What’s going to happen at the east overlook?
MOLINA: We’re going to have open spaces, a lot of public gatherings, concerts, and festivals. That kind of thing. More nature when you think of it versus the west overlook, which is really family oriented.
MOORE: One of the things I’m anxious to do is get ahold of these plans to look both the east and the west overlook. But the thing for me, Tim, is if you build a $200 million park, it needs to be repeatable experience.
ROGERS: What does that mean?
MOORE: So you don’t want to build $200 million park and someone comes and says, “You know, Tim, the park was OK. I’m not sure I’ll go back.” To make a part repeatable, it has to do with the experience, obviously, and experience has to do with the content. You know, did I just go and enjoy a green space, and there was nothing for my 5-year-old? Or I went, and it was great for the kid, but there was nothing for seniors or millennials to do. So experience has taught me that content selection is key, and we’re at this critical point where we still have the opportunity to do so. One of my first responsibilities is to be comprehensively looking at everything and seeing how that translates from a guest experience point of view.
ROGERS: Last question, then. I’ve heard that you’ve already been in town and looking for houses. Where are you looking?
MOORE: Dude, I have no idea where I’m looking. I am driving every community. I’ve been to Cedar Point. I’ve been to—where did Brent [Brown] send me?—East Dallas? Just been driving around, looking man. I have no idea. The traffic is crazy down there, brother. But we’ll figure it out. I’ve been to Arlington. I drove through Fort Worth. So I don’t know.
ROGERS: You’re not looking to live in Arlington, are you?
MOORE: I’m just driving around, man. No idea.
ROGERS: Let me tell you how it works. You get a real estate agent, and they help you, so you don’t just drive around aimlessly, Tony. That’s not the way to shop for a house.
MOORE: No, you know, I typically want to get the feel for myself. I will have an agency. But for me, I like to get out and know my geography.