SIXTEEN STUFFED WILDCATS PEER down from their mounts on the wall as if poised to pounce into the discussion in progress below. Fifteen stone-faced members of the Fair Park Task Force are listening to arguments over how to extract a portion of the proceeds from the park and apply it to the surrounding neighborhood. Alva Baker, a young, energetic Fair Park-area resident, is pressing for a 5 percent tax on every ticket sold for any event in the park: “It’s simple, it doesn’t take a lot of [city] staff support. It can make an immediate impact without having to go through a lot of analytical gymnastics.”
But apparently, Alva Baker’s plea falls on deaf ears. Each opponent has his or her own reason for shooting it down. Jim Graham, member of the Park Board and former trouble-shooter in the Starplex deal: any extra revenues should go for badly needed building repairs at Fair Park. Vernon Smith, member of the board of the State Fair of Texas: you can’t tax the State Fair, the largest money-producing event in the park. Virginia McAlester, representative of Friends of Fair Park: a tax would hurt already struggling cultural organizations that bring badly needed events to the park.
A counterproposal, which would divert a portion of city tax revenues generated by activities at Fair Park to a special neighborhood fund, is presented by McAlester. It passes, but not without raising the ire of Alva Baker. Calling the plan too vague and so much “smoke and mirrors,” she complains after the discussion that “This sends a message to the community that Fair Park doesn’t care about it.”
Despite the emotional tone of the task force debate and the predictable divisions it created, the real significance of the Fair Park tax issue lies outside the walls of that wildcat-haunted conference room in the Dallas Museum of Natural History. At the heart of the matter is not how to tax but whether to take the unprecedented step of creating a special tax on a city-owned facility and applying those monies for the benefit of the surrounding neighborhood. If Dallas adopts such a plan (and it appears likely that it will, at least in some watered-down form), we will be the first city in the nation to tax a city facility for the sole benefit of the neighborhood in which that facility sits.
It is that question-whether to take the step-that has stirred a heated debate from City Hall to the Tower Building at Fair Park.
WHEN MOST PEOPLE ENVISION FAIR PARK. THEY THINK OF AN ISLAND IN a sea of crime-a war zone bunkered with crack houses. Each year during the State Fair, when almost 3 million people tour the park, the violence seeps in through the fence-gunshots, rapes, and hundreds of incidents of lesser violence, from harassment by panhandlers to slashed tires and stolen car stereos. But the battlefield has its demilitarized zones. Not two blocks from Fair Park there is a street of Highland Park-type houses with beautifully tended yards. There are pockets of nice-looking neighborhoods where old people sit on porches and children play in the yards. A cluster of trendy shops and art galleries is just beginning to take root across the street from the park. It is this interwoven social fabric that makes the invasion of urban blight as painful as a wound in the city’s gut-and offers hope that this area could be saved from its fate.
Some herald the idea of siphoning money from Fair Park into the neighborhood as a heroic move to stamp out crime. Others fear the precedent, predicting that such a taxing plan will spawn a spate of “me, too” moves around other city facilities; that the battle cry will go from “Not in My Back Yard” to “Not in My Back Yard Unless You Pay Me.” The idea of a special tax-fed fund to help the economically depressed area, first proposed by then-assistant city manager Jim Reid in a 1987 South Dallas economic development plan, is deceptively simple: take a little money from Fair Park and use it to strengthen the economy of the nearby neighborhoods. Theoretically, by funding rehabilitative programs such as small-business incubators, low-interest home loans, and a job bank, the area would bounce back from the brink of despair and renew itself, drastically reducing crime in the process.
It was this hope that led Reid to propose taking a percentage of every dollar that came into the park and using it “to give the people in the neighborhood a stake in the growth and expansion of Fair Park” The history of that relationship is surprisingly sour. Surrounding residents claim that the park has given them little but noise, traffic, and garbage. “Historically, Fair Park has been like a gigantic vacuum cleaner that sucks everything up into it,” says council member Al Lipscomb, referring to the rows of homes that were taken in the past to provide more parking for the park. “When the State Fair would leave,” he says, “all we got left with was the manure and the rats.”
Surprisingly, the City Council adopted the economic development plan in principle with little debate on the merits of the tax. But it didn’t take any action to levy the tax until the Starplex contract was approved. Council member Diane Rags-dale created the Inner-City Community Development Corporation (ICDC) to monitor the economic development plan, with the idea that it would ultimately receive some of the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund money. To date, the fund contains a whopping $19,242, all of it from a fifteen-cent-per-ticket charge at the Starplex Amphitheatre, which is the only Fair Park enterprise to be taxed so far. William Mann, interim program manager of the ICDC, says his group is squeaking by on borrowed money, a few private donations, and some city funds.
Last May, Ragsdale, Lipscomb, and former council member Al Gonzalez tried to force the council to make good on its promise to the Fair Park neighborhood to give it some park money. But to avoid political heat in already racially tense times, the council avoided the debate by appointing the Fair Park Task Force to recommend a way to go about collecting the tax.
But even as the task force debates “the how,” council members and interested citizens are still at odds over “the whether.” Council member Jerry Bartos sees danger in the prospect of a crazy quilt of independent, anarchic taxing entities. “I liken it to Love Field,-1 he says. “Suppose we wanted to put a 5 percent tax on concessions at Love Field and give the money to the Bachman Lake area?” Bartos paints a picture of potential payoffs to every neighborhood that hosts a recreation center, a post office, or a mass transit stop. He believes that if the council feels strongly enough that a certain area of town needs shoring up, it should vote funds out of general revenue to do so.
But others see it differently, mesmerized by the prospect of a “win-win” situation. If the neighborhood gets its act together, they say, restaurants and shops will move near Fair Park, streets will be cleaner, houses will be better maintained, fewer residents will be jobless, crime will decrease, and the payoff will be obvious: a more attractive Fair Park.
Council member Lori Palmer justifies the plan for its symbolic value, “If we can build a bridge between the neighborhood and Fair Park,” she says, “that would show that Dallas is finally moving out of the Dark Ages (in race relations].”
Philosophical considerations aside, the task force has grappled with ways of raising money for the neighborhood without taking much-needed funds out of the park. In ad-ition to the sales tax plan proposed by Vir-inia McAlester, the task force has voted to use other techniques, such as installing a pedal concession stand at the State Fair, or perhaps holding a Taste of South Dallas food air. They call that the “entrepreneurial approach”
The twenty-two-member task force will report its proposals to the City Council this nonth. Meanwhile, the buildings and facilities at Fair Park are deteriorating and thewater in the lagoon outside the AutomobileBuilding is slimy green. “People don’t wantto see that,” says Fair Park executive generalmanager John Tidwell Jr. “They want to seeblue water like a swimming pool. But thispond doesn’t even have a filtration system.”
Jim Graham shakes his head at all thepushing and pulling going on to take moneyfrom a facility that is in desperate need ofrepair, “If we let this thing fall down aroundour heads,” he says, “then nobody will getanything.”