Where we stand:
Let’s start with the big misconception. For most people, Fair Park means Ferris Wheels, Big Tex, and corny dogs. But that’s only partly true. For 24 days a year Fair Park is a State Fair, the rest of the year, under State Fair corporation control, (this includes Fair setup and takedown), Fair Park is over 200 acres, ugly, neglected and declining.
Of course, that was never the plan. In 1936, when it was built for the Texas Centennial & Exposition, Fair Park sparkled with promise as the new social and cultural center of Dallas. No one then could have foreseen what it is now: a 24-day fair and otherwise in disuse. What caused this? Two forces. First, complacent city government. Second, the State Fair corporation’s strip-mining of Dallas’s crown jewel—a story of taxpayers hit for minimal upkeep and increasing decline.
And yet, and yet: Dallas now faces a choice.
As Dallas stands at a crossroads, we stand with those wanting long-overdue change and major improvements to Fair Park and its neighborhoods. South Dallas citizens are proud and passionate; they love their community. It’s time for their city to love them back.
For the neighborhoods around Fair Park that have borne the brunt of the State Fair corporation’s siege, and for all of Dallas, it’s time to see:
- A “park” in Fair Park – a signature site of 80-110 acres for ALL people
- Fair Park’s historic buildings preserved and in active use year-round
- A catalyst for jobs and economic development
- State Fair’s constructive co-existence with existing and new uses
Put the “park” in Fair Park
Imagine a massive public park just a mile from a bustling downtown Dallas: 100 or more acres of green space to walk, ride and play. Imagine grassy lawns. Shaded pedestrian lanes and bike paths connecting to every corner of the city. Imagine ballparks and a swimming pool. Did you know that a creek runs under the asphalt in Fair Park? Imagine that creek opened up and exposed, and meandering along tree-lined footpaths. Imagine “sponge parks” that capture storm-water and reduce flooding. Imagine a massive, green, public space full of people and activities 365 days a year, a life-giving new pulse in our city’s heart.
Preserve and reactivate the historic buildings
Fair Park’s crown jewel is its Art Deco exposition buildings—the largest group, intact, in the U.S. For most of the year, they sit empty and as a result, they fall into disrepair. Our renowned architecture and public artwork stand unseen, unused, unappreciated. But imagine an El Centro Culinary Institute in what was once the Women’s Museum. Imagine a coding school, an innovation-and-entrepreneurial center, or a jobs-and-job-training center next door.
Fair Park opened as a salute to innovation and “can-do” spirit. Today it’s where bold plans go to die. (Since the 1980s, dozens of plans to revitalize Fair Park have withered there.) NOTE: Two former Dallas City Managers* and the former Dallas Parks and Recreation director*--leaders who failed to implement those plans--all now conveniently sit on the boards of the State Fair of Texas corporation.
Imagine those magnificent Art Deco buildings filled with proud tenants who open, use and maintain them daily, all year long. Imagine visitors in and out all year long. Imagine those buildings as income-producing instead of taxpayer-draining. Imagine a treasured historic legacy back in business.
Create a catalyst for jobs and economic development
Today Fair Park throws wide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revitalize and transform South Dallas with permanent year-round jobs (no longer just temporary, seasonal, or event-driven) in new construction and education.
Christopher Leinberger, a fellow at Brookings Institute and professor at George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis, recently submitted this essay for publication in the Dallas Morning News:
“Downtown-adjacent places, averaging 200-400 acres in size, have been redeveloped as regionally significant employment, educational, medical, and civic places, contributing to the metropolitan economy and the wealth of the neighborhoods surrounding them. Examples include:
- Washington DC – DuPont Circle, NOMA, Capitol Riverfront, among others surrounding downtown;
- Atlanta – Midtown, Centennial Olympic Park, Sweet Auburn, Georgia State/Civic Center, among others surrounding downtown Atlanta; and
- Houston – Montrose, The East End, Midtown, West University/Rice Village, among others surrounding downtown Houston.
Almost all of these downtown-adjacent places were exceedingly depressed areas just 15-20 years ago … Dallas has a rare opportunity to create a new downtown-adjacent place on the south side of downtown due to the public ownership of Fair Park. This 277-acre park is extremely under-utilized since it is only maximized in use for one month a year and either lightly used or vacant for the rest of the year … The 277-acres at Fair Park offer the opportunity to create inclusive economic development, a focus for its neighborhood, continued use of parts of it for parks and open space, as well as employment and vitality for Southern Dallas. This is a market-driven way to bring economic development to Southern Dallas … Best practices cities have implemented tax freezes, inclusive zoning, and other methods to avoid displacement of lower income resident homeowners and renters.”
Experts at a Big Four accounting firm say the economic impact of a revitalized Fair Park would be:
- $3.5 billion in total construction
- $2.42 billion in local direct spending
- 8,000 new construction jobs
- 5,000 new permanent jobs
- Educational opportunities
- Year-round activities and increased number of visitors
- Catalyst for more new growth
- $77 million annually in increased property and sales tax revenues
A new birth for Fair Park will send new life across and throughout Dallas.
State Fair’s constructive co-existence with both existing and new uses
Everyone loves the Texas State Fair. Big Tex. Corny dogs. Texas-OU. For years, they loved that Fair Park was more than just a fair—with museums, fountains, walkways and greenspace. Over years of misuse, however, as the State Fair grew its footprint at Fair Park, great museums have died, being forced either to move out or close their doors:
- Age of Steam Railroad Museum
- Automobile Museum
- Dallas Aquarium
- Dallas Museum of Art
- Dallas Opera
- Dallas Symphony
- Dallas Women’s Museum
- Museum of Natural History
- Science Museum
For four months a year, the State Fair occupies Fair Park for its anachronistic setup and takedown – to shoot life into the park for only a 24-day event. For the other eight months, Fair Park is a ghost town, a storage eyesore. And the dead months (though the State Fair corporation legally is obligated to maintain Midway operations year-round) kill museums and potential businesses. What is the answer? Just this: for Fair Park to be a 365-day-a-year people magnet, the State Fair corporation must walk back its footprint, release the park from its four-month occupation, and allow businesses to thrive all year long, including during the 24-day fair. The State Fair is overdue to co-exist, constructively, with new year-round uses.
Create a “Park for ALL People”
Currently, Fair Park welcomes some people but not all. For starters, it welcomes automobiles. Of its 277 acres, 180 are for parking only, forming a physical ring of concrete and asphalt that physically shouts, “Keep out!” Next to the asphalt, high fences shut out neighborhood residents. On land acquired by eminent domain, the city built the now-infamous parking lots deliberately to buffer white fairgoers from “the poor negroes in their shacks.” Redevelopment Program for the State Fair of Texas – November 1966
The Fair Park message is: Fairgoers welcome, all others keep out. A “park for ALL the people” (not just fairgoers) will have no fences. Instead of an asphalt heat island, the welcome mat will be green space. Fair Park needs to connect and give life to the neighborhoods surrounding it. Fair Park can be an inviting, accessible green life space with a long menu of recreational activities for people who live nearby 365 days a year. It’s time, Dallas. Let’s get it done!
- *Richard Knight, City Manager of Dallas, 1986-1990
- *Mary Suhm, City Manager of Dallas, 2005-2013
- *Paul Dyer, Director, Dallas Parks & Recreation Department, 1992-2012