DALLAS (TIP): The Dallas City Council on Wednesday, September 3, offered broad support for a proposal to hand over Fair Park’s operations and management to a private, nonprofit group. A special Fair Park task force briefed the council – and the Dallas Park and Recreation Board – on that and other plans to revitalize the 277-acre, city-owned park.
The ninemember group was tasked by Mayor Mike Rawlings to come up with “dramatic ideas.” Topping the list was the idea to overhaul Fair Park’s labyrinth governance structure and replace it with a model that’s been successful at the Dallas Zoo. Other proposals included improving access to Fair Park and establishing a community park on its southern side. And though there were no formal votes, council members were clearly impressed.
“Today was to talk about this and measure the passion – that was my goal,” Rawlings said. “And I got a lot of passion. … There is some real gold in the visions you laid out.” Now the hard part begins, especially as it relates to Fair Park’s operations and management. Council members had lots of questions:
What might privatization actually look like?
How would the nonprofit be organized?
Who would serve on the group’s board?
How would the surrounding community be involved?
And quite simply, what’s the next step?
Task force members acknowledged that there aren’t easy answers in untangling the bureaucratic web that’s held back Fair Park for years. And they deferred to the council and park board in coming up with the best way to implement any recommendations. But the panel was clear that a new governance model – combined with improved funding – was critical.
“You have to fix the governance first, the money second, and good things should happen,” said Jack Matthews, a Dallas developer who serves on the task force. The Fair Park task force – led by Linda Perryman Evans, president of the Meadows Foundation – featured prominent officials like former City Manager Mary Suhm, former City Council member Diane Ragsdale and Park Board President Max Wells.
Over the last several months, the group gathered nearly 30 times in meetings that were closed to the public. The end result was a 46- page report that echoed many past Fair Park studies, including a comprehensive development plan that was completed in 2003.
The task force’s report, however, was noteworthy in its keen focus on Fair Park’s governance. The city owns and operates Fair Park. The State Fair of Texas takes over the park during its annual run, but the Dallas Park and Recreation Board and ultimately the City Council otherwise set the park’s policy and direction. And that’s only the beginning of a cavalcade of city departments, appointed boards, nonprofit entities, preservationists, private companies and other groups that have a say in how things are done at Fair Park.
The task force proposes to cut through that maze by creating a new nonprofit that would be the park’s sole governing body. The group would still report to the city, and its board would represent the various stakeholders in and around Fair Park. But with its own executive director and staff, the nonprofit alone would handle scheduling, maintenance, operations and marketing. That would eliminate red tape, encourage more investment and create an avenue for other major improvements to follow, officials said. “I’m with this 100 percent,” Council Member Dwaine Caraway said.
“This is … where we should’ve been a long time ago.” There were some reservations. Some council members complained about the task force’s secrecy and relative lack of community involvement. Some pointed out that the suggested financial infusions – Fair Park’s capital needs are $478 million – had to be weighed against other dire demands in the city. Several also made a point to highlight that the park department has done a pretty good job running Fair Park, all things considered.
“The park department works hard to maintain this jewel with what they have,” Monica Alonzo said. Some council members also focused on other recommendations. Rawlings, for instance, stressed that a proposal to lower Interstate 30 near Fair Park and to cover it with a deck park is “one of the most transformative ideas in the city of Dallas.”
But most were curious about how the proposed governance model might work. Jennifer Staubach Gates and Scott Griggs pressed for more details on the structure and responsibilities of the proposed nonprofit organization. Tennell Atkins emphasized that there needs to be a timeline outlining how everything would come together. And Rawlings cautioned that there are legal and logistical hurdles in making it all happen. Officials, however, aren’t wasting any time. Wells, the Park Board president, pledged that his board would “move quickly.”