Amanda Popken: Fate of Fair Park Hangs in the Balance Thursday

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Panel 8.1.16

[Editor’s Note: We’re hosting a robust conversation about the future of Fair Park here on ahead of the 8:30 a.m., Aug. 4 City of Dallas Park Board meeting that could help decide the iconic landmark’s fate.]

UPDATE: We have the entire agenda, including the unabridged version of the Walt Humann proposal for managing Fair Park, embedded at the end of this piece.

If you care about the fate of Fair Park, you may want to show up to the Park Board meeting this Thursday. Or at least read the 20-year, $12 million management contract that the Park Board will be voting on.

Park Board Agenda

Monday night’s panel discussion on Fair Park and the potential Park Board vote on Walt Humann’s management contract filled the Hall of State (around 300 attendees.) Despite Mayor Mike Rawlings’ last-minute press conference Monday afternoon to “make sure everybody knows the exact truth of what’s happened,” that everyone’s behind this approach (a private firm managing Fair Park), that the Park Board has been talking to Walt for two years, and “now it’s time to vote.” It was all too dismissive of the community meeting scheduled for later in the day.

The community meeting was organized in less than 1 week, in response to the July 21st Park Board special work session meeting where board members walked out (see about minute 31 of the meeting) in objection to the truncated meeting agenda which limited a thorough discussion on the proposed management contract.  They are expected to vote on the management contract at the upcoming meeting at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 4, which would then set it up for a city council vote. To enact the management contract for the next fiscal year, the agreement would need to be passed through council before next year’s budget is approved in September. These boards meet once a month, and the council meets twice a month with time required to put items on the agendas … you see the rush.

Aug 1 Event

Monday night’s community meeting was the tip of an iceberg of things we should be talking about regarding Fair Park. The biggest conclusion was it’s too soon to vote on a decision this big and this complex without carefully considering the details. Or without going through the usual procurement process the city uses for every other major expenditure like this. Or without doing a global search for expert park managers who would run the proposed Fair Park Texas Foundation, along with experts on Dallas and the South Dallas community of course. Interestingly, Humann mentioned at the Mayor’s afternoon press conference that the foundation would in fact be conducting a search for the best qualified CEO. Humann has volunteered to fill that position for free, for up to 3 years until someone can be hired.

There were lots of similar questions about important details at the community meeting. It seemed few attendees had actually read the final proposed contract. The June 21st Proposed DRAFT Management Agreement with Fair Park Texas Foundation and the Fair Park Texas Foundation Bylaws had many more questionable holes that it apparently has now. Seems appropriate to allocate more time to consider the final plan closely before needing to approve it.

Despite the terrible acoustics at the Hall of State’s main atrium, occasionally an attendee would shout out a question, and the panelists would actually answer them. It felt like a genuine conversation between civic leaders and thought leaders in the community attempting to understand the management contract as well as this private foundation’s place in ‘fixing’ Fair Park. Why can’t we have more conversations like this?

Panelist Michael Phillips, author of White Metropolis, declared this process an example of “the way Dallas has traditionally worked: behind closed doors.” Panelist Marcos Ronquillo echoed his sentiments, calling the management plan a “pitch and catch” deal — Humann pitched and the Mayor caught.

Where’s the balance?

We need to study this management agreement carefully before approving this privatization. And we need to — at some point — have a productive conversation on what exactly we’re trying to accomplish here! Recent discussions have included everything from tearing buildings down and building massive parking structures, to shrinking the State Fair’s footprint.

the-acccommocation1Race politics are awkward to say the least, and the history of race politics around Fair Park is abysmal. Just read Jim Schutze’s The Accommodation (out of print but some black market PDFs have surfaced …) He wrote it with the assistance of Reverend Peter Johnson, who made an impactful 20 minute introduction at Monday evening’s meeting, to “set the stage” for the discussion. Really, I think he and the organizers wanted to make sure that people understand that this problem has existed for a very long time. And the ‘problem’ is way bigger and deeper than just a management plan will change.

There’s waaaaaaay too much water under the bridge for retribution. But it doesn’t seem like that’s anyone’s agenda. Moreover, the agenda is simply recognition that a lot needs to change.

Really, this is a bigger issue about our City as a whole and how we keep middle class families. How we deal with quality of life assets and build quality neighborhoods with good schools. How we’ve allowed this community to sit in decline for decades. It’s an appalling failure that we have had this incredible asset in the middle of South Dallas for decades, yet it’s not contributing to creating a vibrant place around it. The way we deal with this situation says a lot about the way we deal with our city in general. We’ve neglected basic city services to half of our city since white flight and we have to face this reality to begin changing it. (This is Councilman Philip Kingston’s pulpit: sidewalks, streetlights, stormwater management, code compliance, and police protection for all!)

There are systemic issues surfacing in this situation that we can tease apart here and really grow from, but we can’t just keep fighting about it and think that will solve anything.

We need to take real steps toward improvement. Maybe this is one? Maybe, once this skeleton agreement is in place, we can begin to define what we want the Park to become? Read the 70-plus-page agreement carefully before Thursday’s 8:30 a.m. meeting (if you can get ahold of it — my requests have gone unmet at the time of publishing.) And sign up to speak before 8 a.m. Or trust that your council-appointed Park Board members will make a well-considered decision. Either way, anticipate more conversations to come.

City of Dallas Parks and Recreation Board Agenda by Joanna England on Scribd

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Amanda Popken

Amanda is a community strategist & economic development specialist focused on placemaking and urban design promoting, inspiring, teaching & engaging communities to grow their own social capital. She is President of Congress for the New Urbanism North Texas and can be found at

Reader Interactions


  1. Michael Phillips says

    Ms. Popken, you might find my history of Dallas race relations, “White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas,1841-2001” helpful in the future.

    Michael Phillips

    • mmAmanda Popken says

      Thanks Michael, I am looking forward to reading your book – you had some striking comments at the panel discussion – particularly about the shields in the emblem behind the stage! Would love to hear more on that.

  2. Yarborough says

    Amanda- didn’t your firm get paid by Don Williams to develop a plan to reduce the size of the State Fair of Texas? Might you have a slightly biased perspective?

    • mmAmanda Popken says

      Hey Yarborough – actually I’m not part of Ash+Lime Strategies anymore. I was a founding partner, but I left in Dec 2015, before they were hired to work with Don’s Foundation for Community Empowerment. I had been part of the team as we began thinking and talking through our ideas about what needed to happen at Fair Park to improve connectivity with the surrounding neighborhoods, but the rest of the A+L team took that to a whole new level with this report you referenced, that they formulated without me. Mainly it’s due to Don Rains’s intimate knowledge of the layout of the Fair Park interior. (He designed the new way finding that’s still in production I believe.) I do think it was a fantastic assessment of how to move forward and make Fair Park – in general and the State Fair specifically – more productive and easier to navigate. Did you read the whole report? It’s really well researched. I wish I could take some credit! They’re just friends now though. Full disclosure.

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