Fair park is a huge asset that sits mostly empty 11 months of the year. No other major world city has 277 acres of prime city-owned property lying unused near its downtown. So why does Dallas?
The problem is the State Fair of Texas. The State Fair needs the park for 24 days a year. Because nobody can operate a park that has to be dismantled for a state fair, one of the world’s greatest collection of Art Deco buildings sits empty and dark for most of the year. The solution is for the State Fair to move.
Other cities have first-class amusement parks and pleasure gardens—Copenhagen’s Tivoli being one of the oldest—that are host to festivals, exhibitions, concerts, and entertainment year-round. Fair Park could be made into a money machine and a development engine for East Dallas, coming alive with light every night of the year. Instead, some of the most prized acreage and buildings in Dallas are held hostage to 24 days of fast-talking carnies and a bunch of pigs.
The State Fair began in 1886, and within 20 years the grounds were taken over by the City of Dallas. What a coup that turned out to be. In 1934, when state leaders were looking for a site for the Texas Centennial Exposition, celebrating 100 years since the Texas Revolution, those 277 acres were an irresistible selling point—even though Dallas didn’t exist at the time of the Revolution. R.L. Thornton raised $10 million privately—this was during the Depression—and Dallas hosted more than 6 million visitors. The Exposition’s success took Dallas to a new level.
There was no State Fair in 1935, 1936, or 1937 (after the Centennial, the setup was re-used for a Pan-American Exposition). Somehow Dallas survived without a State Fair. That’s because city leaders had replaced it with something bigger, better, longer, and more entertaining. We can learn a lesson from that.
State fairs were nice in their day. But agricultural exhibits, baking contests, and steer-raising awards are relics of a bygone era. If some parts of Texas still relish them, the State Fair can still sponsor them—somewhere else. Maybe, after all these years, Fort Worth would like a shot. A city that can make its stockyards into a tourist attraction could do a lot with a state fair.
State Fair officials counter that they have a plan to open the midway year-round. I don’t think they could, nor do I think they should. First, they don’t have the cash. Fair officials like to give the impression that it is a big money-maker. It is not. From 2003 through 2008, the Fair ran a cumulative deficit of $6.2 million, according to its public filings. But even if it could afford $40-50 million to renovate parts of Fair Park, an organization whose experience is limited to running one state fair once a year is not the one to do it.
There are world-class enterprises—Disney is the best-known example—that know more about contemporary amusement parks. Dallas should open up Fair Park to a world-wide competition and give control of the park to the company that can construct and market a year-round entertainment zone while producing the highest return for taxpayers.
Dallas is urban, and getting more urban every day. Fair Park could be its crown jewel. The key is to bring it up to contemporary standards of entertainment and to make it a 365-day attraction. For that to happen, the State Fair of Texas—and the pigs—have to go.