Cautious Optimism at Park Board’s Special Fair Park Meeting

Last night the Parks and Recreation Board held a special meeting seeking public comment on the soon-to-be-voted-on management contract for Fair Park. You may think you’re experiencing déjà vu, and you may be, but from when?  There have been so many Fair Park plans tossed on the fire they make the current California blazes look small.

Most recently you probably recall Walt Humann’s Fair Park Texas Foundation plan (elbowed in by Mayor Rawlings) that made it right up to the precipice of passage before being scuttled in October 2016. (Full transparency: we at CandysDirt.com wondered early on why the Humann plan was being pushed so quickly, and why the city’s share of costs escalated over time rather than decreased.) The scuttling forced the city to initiate a real request for proposals (RFP). Three ultimately responded – Monte Anderson’s Fair Park Conservancy, Humann’s Fair Park Texas Foundation, and the winning Fair Park First (FPF). (Download a copy of the full August 2, 2018 briefing here)

Fair Park First consists of the nine-member FPF Board which is responsible for fundraising, subcontractor supervision, historic preservation and community engagement and outreach. Fair Park management, capital improvements (except those funded with bond money) and Minority and Woman Business Enterprise initiatives will be handled by Spectra. Rounding out the team is Biederman Redevelopment Ventures (BRV) whose job it will be to update the Fair Park Comprehensive Plan and design and program the neighborhood park(s) within the whole of Fair Park.

What this plan delivers is experience. Both Spectra and BRV have done these jobs a multitude of times – and done them very successfully. BRV has transformed over 100 parks – including Klyde Warren. Spectra manages 319 properties – including the California Expo & State Fair. Their résumés speak volumes to what they can and would do for Fair Park. It’s a breadth of experience neither of the other two bidders could match. Fair Park and southern Dallas have been diddled too long to give a project of this scale to those reliant on learning-by-doing.

It’s part of the reason FPF scored 87.54 points out of 100 when judged by their financial plan, experience, project approach and Business Inclusion and Development. The other two bidders scored 65.16 and 78.34 points.

Money, Money, Money

Let’s talk finances. The experienced guys call for $34.5 million over 10 years from the city. The other two wanted $84 million and $103 million … to start. The two losing bids also wanted the city to fund their total estimated operating expenses, which jumped the city’s bill to $191.6 million and $182.9 million respectively.

I’ll admit I’m happy and skeptical. The numbers are soooo much lower for FPF it makes you wonder. I’m OK with their operating expenses being that much lower because of their experience. They know how to program expenses in their sleep. The “hmmm …” comes from their not needing the city to fund their operating expenses. The city is kicking in $3 million and the FPF folks say they’ll generate another $3 million in donations per year. That leaves $7 million unaccounted for, just to keep the lights on.

I suspect some of that will be made up from leases on unused buildings, perhaps event payments and certainly naming rights, but it’s unclear. (Hopefully they’ll finagle cellular carriers to improve service inside Fair Park’s stone buildings.) And that lack of clarity was questioned during the night’s meeting by several neighborhood speakers. Not only does there appear to be fuzziness on the operating expense gap, but as many pointed out, there’s a ton of deferred maintenance that needs to be done – like $200 million even after the $50 million in bond money. I think that’s certainly a question worth a more extensive answer.

That said, it’s a good place to mention that the entire contract has not been made public yet (nor was it for prior bids), so it must be there, right? The Parks and Recreation Board can’t be that blind and Spectra/Biederman can’t be that negligent.

I’m willing to go out on a short limb here because of their deep experience.  Spectra and Biederman are huge operations and they didn’t get that way by diddling local governments or crying poormouth five minutes into the contract. This isn’t the script of The Music Man. Additionally, for the first two years they all have to report quarterly to the Parks and Recreation Board on their progress and issues … and those meetings will be open to the public. So we’ll see pretty quick if something’s going south. From year three onwards, they report to the Park Board annually.

I think both Spectra and Biederman see big profit in Fair Park. I think the rest of the local development community, currently leaving “We’ll buy your home/business/land” flyers under area doors, smell money too.

Public Comments

While the room wasn’t full-full, there were a lot of comments that can be broken into a few categories. Note: this was a public comment session, not an answer session. The Park Board committed to posting all the questions online in the coming days.

As I said, many questioned the numbers and how they worked. There was the same trepidation about how the seeming gap would be filled.

Tons of comments reflected cautious optimism. Essentially telling FPF, Spectra, and Biederman, “It all sounds great, but we’ll be watching, and if you screw it up, you’ll answer to us.”  South Dallas has been politically and economically left for dead by Northern Dallas for decades. They’ve also been empty-promised more times than can be counted. Their caution is totally understandable, and we share their hope that this time the promises will be kept.

Several community nonprofit leaders and residents wanted assurances and programs for local hiring, internships, and vocational apprenticeships to provide area young people with a ladder to build a better future for themselves and their children … in the neighborhood.

Within the contract it states (emphasis mine):

  • FPF Manager shall establish a recruitment and hiring program to provide employment opportunities for minorities in and surrounding the Fair Park community as a first priority
  • FPF Manager shall establish an internship program for local minority students in and surrounding the Fair Park community
  • FPF Manager shall create a program to partner and support local not-for-profit organizations residing in the Fair Park community that advocate and provide services to minorities

While the minimum wage will be $10.94 per hour, there appears to be no cost-of-living increase built in. It would be a shame if after the contract’s 20 years the official minimum wage remained $10.94 per hour.

I swear I took a shower.

Community Outreach?

Many community residents voiced frustration that FPF had not reached out to hold community meetings – that poor communication may explain why there were plenty of empty seats at this meeting. They rightly felt that the community needs to be part of these changes and plans. And I was right there with them, ready to “WTF“ that until one Park Board member said the reason was that they were probably prohibited/discouraged from meeting with the community until the process was further along.

All in all, I’m more comfortable with this plan because it was garnered through a real RFP process that vetted each plan before deciding. The winner also has deep experience doing the exact same thing all over the place.

Of course what would a community meeting be without an eye roll?  You know it’s going to be good when a speaker starts out with, “You’ve all received my email and so has the Governor …” Essentially the comment was a riff on the old Pace Picante ads where nothing could be better than something from Texas. Regardless of whatever experience this team brings, apparently someone in Texas could always do it better.

(Eye roll)

 

Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.

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