Saturday, December 3, 2022 Dec 3, 2022
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How Walt Humann’s Fair Park Plan Looks Like a ‘Scam’

Why should the city hand over millions, with little oversight, for the management of this civic asset?
By Wylie H. Dallas |

A couple of weeks ago, the Dallas Morning News ran an editorial highly critical of the fact that the Dallas Park Board was being pushed for a rushed vote on a massive, long-term contract to turn over one of the city’s most treasured assets, Fair Park, to a newly-formed foundation apparently headed by Hunt Oil’s former CEO (and a University Park resident), Walt Humann.

I say “apparently” because during the nine months leading up to the park board’s July meeting, Humann neglected to identify the members of the foundation’s board. The Rock of Truth also opined that “the foundation’s bylaws must be changed to ensure that it is subject to the Texas Open Meetings Act.” Finally, they pointed out that “the promise of a park is too vague, too small and too dependent upon ‘available funding.'” This prompted me to tweet that this plan, proposed by Mayor Mike Rawlings, appeared to be “nothing more than a scam.”

My tweet must have touched a nerve, because within five hours, editorial board member Michael Lindenberger fired back, accusing me of “foolishness.” Continuing, he said: “Come on. What’s so troubling? Yes, we’re convinced that the board roster must be complete before the board votes on the proposal. But nothing we said or reported suggested he’s going to have trouble meeting that deadline. It’s nearly five weeks from Thursday before park board members vote … Wylie and Co. make it sound like the fact that the language is too soft is an outrage and a scam — rather than a problem to be solved.”

So… let me explain:

In September 2014, the Dallas City Council, Park Board, and citizens were sold a beautiful vision by a mayoral task force: transforming Fair Park into a “a world-class public park … among the country’s greatest greens … a park for all people … enhancing access and connectivity with community and city … with an ‘every day’ urban park” as a central feature.

To best do so, we were told, would require turning the park’s management over to a new not-for-profit headed by experienced park managers recruited via a national search, overseeing a beefed-up budget. At long last, it seemed, Fair Park’s long-neglected neighbors (and the citizens of Dallas, as a whole) would have a real chance of seeing Fair Park become, as Humann suggested, the “crown jewel of the region.” Subject to a few modifications, the Park Board signed off on a plan in May of last year that included “improving access to the 277-acre grounds and suggested creating a park on the southern side.” Around that same time, evidently, Rawlings asked Humann to serve as a “consultant” to “aid in the transition, something Rawlings would like to see wrapped up by May 2016.”

Unfortunately, after that promising start, things seemed to go off the rails pretty quickly. The first sign of trouble was at a city council briefing on the plan in November 2014. Despite having great work upon which to capitalize (the mayor’s Fair Park task force report), Humann inexplicably served up his own dog’s breakfast of a report, which I encourage everyone to attempt to read. At the time, Rawlings said, “[Humann] has not agreed to lead this effort, but if the Council is enthusiastic, I think he would.”

This was concerning for three reasons: 1) The mayor’s own task force had recommended “the new entity should include an executive director and staff, which would be sought through a comprehensive national search; 2) Humann’s briefing fell well short of what would be expected from someone angling for over half a billion dollars in taxpayer funds; and 3) inexplicably, he was demanding a “management fee” of $25 to $35 million per annum (the mayor’s task force had suggested the city’s budget would only jump from $10 million to $15 million). At the very least, however, Humann promised operations “would be transparent” and subject to supervision by an outside auditor.” He also mentioned creating “additional green space by moving some parking dual-use and some underground. No above ground since they are visual barriers [sic].”

Fast forward to June 30 of this year. After months of additional meetings, a detailed management agreement was presented to the Park Board for consideration, with the board’s president, Max Well, angling for a vote as soon as possible. Robert Wilonsky did a great job highlighting many of the issues:

[T]he former Hunt Oil Co. chairman and creator and chair of the Fair Park Texas Foundation, still hasn’t fleshed out a board of trustees; an escalating multi-million-dollar management fee the city would pay to the foundation; and the fact the foundation would negotiate its own contract with the State Fair of Texas.

Board members also said Thursday they’re concerned that the proposed contract allows the foundation to create its own performance plan. There also is worry over the lack of transparency: Board members, chief among them Becky Rader, want to know whether the foundation’s bylaws will allow for meetings that would be open to the public.

Willis Winters, director of the Park and Recreation Department, said the city doesn’t have them.

‘Those will be sent with the board,’ said Winters, once Humann returns from a long-scheduled vacation.

And several board members were also unhappy that the draft contract doesn’t force the foundation to build the long-discussed, long-promised ‘community park’ on what’s now a sprawling parking lot along Robert B. Cullum Boulevard.

The list goes on.

As best as I can tell, after two years of work, NONE of the benefits the public, park board, and City Council had been promised are guaranteed to be delivered. All that is certain is that the city is going to be turning over 277 acres of land to an entity controlled by a gentleman from University Park for at least 20 years, while simultaneously pledging to transfer over half a billion dollars for this same entity to do with as it wishes.

No guarantee of a park. No assurance of a world-class management team. No assurance of transparency and accountability.

What are we guaranteed? Well, we are going to have to cut roughly $10 million to $15 million in city services to fund Humann’s annual management fee demand. Which budget is going to take that hit — police, fire, streets, animal services, code enforcement, all of them?

We also appear to be committing $125 million out of future bonding capacity toward Humann’s program. To what, it’s hard to say, because he hasn’t told the park board. All the supporting schedules to the proposed management agreement are missing or blank. What other critical city needs are we going to ignore to fund that demand — street reconstruction, traffic signals, flood control?

Lindenberger suggests that these are all “problems to be solved.” But Rawlings and Humann have had over two years to solve these problems. They aren’t solved, and critical information is missing. Beyond that, the fact is that Humann’s incomplete plan does nothing to definitively address the problem he was asked to solve: building a great regional and community park. Instead he’s demanding a massive increase in city subsidies for reasons that are not entirely clear, while simultaneously reducing control, transparency, and accountability.

Oddly, Lindenberger places blame for the present situation on the current park board members, but that overlooks three key facts:

  1. The current Park Board’s hands are largely tied due to an extremely poor existing management agreement with the State Fair of Texas that was authored by Dianne Curry when she was the president of the board (after signing the agreement, Curry left the board and joined the State Fair of Texas board, before swapping that board seat for the role of secretary of and founding board member of Humann’s new foundation). According to the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, it is the State Fair itself that is largely to blame for the sorry state of affairs at Fair Park.
  2. The current Park Board is comprised to a large extent of relatively recent appointees who have strong interest in addressing these legacy issues.
  3. With respect to budgetary matters, the Park Board’s hands are also largely tied by City Hall, acting via the city manager.

Lindenberger cites three specific issues as justification for a change: “A community park? A warmer relationship between the State Fair and its neighbors? Strong support of resident cultural institutions? None of that is happening under the current leadership.” But none of that is guaranteed to happen under Humann’s plan, either.

The lack of a community park and strong support of resident cultural institutions isn’t the park board’s fault; it’s the fault of misplaced spending priorities that fall squarely under the domain of the city manager’s office. Park board members don’t have the ability to conjure up money out of thin air. With respect to the State Fair, they are rendered powerless as a result of the flawed management agreement they inherited. Moreover, NONE of those items are addressed in the new management agreement.

Given all of the above, what’s the hurry? None of this makes any sense.

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