After years of false starts on how the city of Dallas should move forward with Fair Park, the final resolution on what to do with the aging landmark came without rancor and with surprising unanimity.
On Wednesday, the Dallas City Council unanimously approved a plan to transfer oversight of the 277-acre park to an outside partnership between a new nonprofit and a for-profit venue manager.
The vote is a coda to nearly two decades of debate surrounding the park, dating back to a comprehensive development plan created in 2003.
“I think this is a great opportunity for the true gem of Dallas, good for the community, the current operators, as well as the whole city,” council member Jennifer Staubach Gates said. “I really hope that Fair Park becomes the destination place that, at one time, it was. I think this gives it hope to have a future.”
With the council’s approval, the city will enter into a 20-year deal with the nonprofit Fair Park First, essentially turning over the keys for the management and operations of the park.
In turn, Fair Park First will hand those duties over to its for-profit partner, Philadelphia-based venue and hospitality company Spectra. The joint venture will take over operations in Fair Park in 45 days.
Owned by Comcast, Spectra manages hundreds of similar venues across the world, from fairgrounds to stadiums. Fair Park First will be responsible for overseeing Spectra’s efforts, as well as fundraising for a new park on the grounds and much-needed capital improvements.
The city will pay Fair Park First no more than $34,598,909 for the first 10 years of the deal, tens of millions less than the two other bids it received through the competitive bidding process. In securing the deal, Spectra said it could operate Fair Park more efficiently than the city, drawing in millions of dollars in additional revenue through its venue planning and promotional expertise.
The contract requires using excess revenues for capital improvements in the park.
“In the end, we got a better project than I imagined we could get,” council member Lee Kleinman said.
Prior to the vote, a few community members expressed their concerns about how the process seemed rushed.
Ken Smith, the president of the Revitalize South Dallas Coalition, told the council that further examination of the contracts between Dallas and Fair Park First, and Fair Park First and Spectra, were needed to get the best deal possible.
Former Texas House Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt echoed Smith’s sentiments, asking for a delay to incorporate more feedback from the Park Board and others in the community.
“All these concerns can be baked into the contract,” Ehrhardt said. “We’re just not quite there yet.”
Dallas’ chief financial officer Elizabeth Reich said the contract incorporated many of the recommended changes offered by the Park Board, which approved the deal on a 13-2 vote.
The revised contract included requiring Fair Park First’s board of directors to have more members from the surrounding community, clarifying timelines around the neighborhood park’s construction, and beefing up the conflict of interest policy.
The much-anticipated neighborhood park, built inside the fairgrounds, was the only significant point of debate. Fair Park First and Spectra have stated that the park, slated to be designed by one of its partners -- Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, which was involved in the planning of Klyde Warren Park -- would be a top priority once it received approval by the City Council.
But council members Tennell Atkins and Kevin Felder both expressed skepticism about the park ever coming to fruition. Atkins was concerned about the lack of funding available for the project, which, at this point, would heavily rely on fundraising.
Felder, whose council district includes Fair Park, groused about the lack of details about the park, with no specifics on its size and location.
Mayor Mike Rawlings offered his doubts as well, but added that he was hopeful that deadlines could be met.
“Until we get a park, we’ve got a problem,” Rawlings said. “I’m with Mr. Atkins; I still don’t quite understand the math, how we’re going to get that funded in that short of time. But I’m a believer in the art of the possible.”
Even though the agreement is in place, months of work remain, Reich said.
All but two contracts that were held between the city and Fair Park tenants were assumed by Fair Park First and Spectra. And the city wants those arrangements, with tenants such as the African American Museum and Dallas Summer Musicals, to be extended for the 20-year term of the new contract. To drive that point home, the council also passed a resolution asking the city manager to help facilitate those negotiations with Fair Park First.
The key exception is the State Fair of Texas, Fair Park’s largest and most valuable tenant. The fair’s contract with the city is in place until 2028, and Reich said that State Fair officials did not express any urgency to have that contract handed over to Fair Park First.
That’s problematic for some council members who have long maintained that the State Fair, with its long set-up and break-down time and use of most of the Fair Park buildings, has hindered development there. Over the years museums and other year-round attractions have had to move to make room for the State Fair.
But few of those grievances were aired Wednesday.
“It’s a great day for South Dallas and the city as a whole,” Bobby Abtahi, president of the Park Board, said after the vote. “But now, the work begins.”
Corbett Smith, Staff Writer