Mayor Steve Bartlett may already be sorry he compared the image of a restored, revitalized Fair Park to Epcot Center at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
An element of magic may be present in Fair Park’s stylized, old buildings. But seriously: What were the supporters of a one-year, half-cent sales tax to pay for restoration efforts thinking when they dreamed up that analogy? Art Deco Mickey? Big Tex and the Seven Dwarfs?
East Dallas State Rep. John Carona wasted no time in airing his opinion: “Comparing Fair Park to Epcot Center is like comparing the Trinity River to Wet ‘N Wild,” says Carona, who quickly created a group called Not Another Cent to oppose the Fair Park, Yes! Campaign and develop an alternative funding proposal to pay for Fair Park improvements.
The issue, then, isn’t whether Fair Park needs improvement. It does. The issue is who should pay the bill.
Supporting the Tax
Virginia McAlester, chairman of the Fair Park Development Board and a long-time East Dallas neighborhood preservationist, would like to get on with convincing voters to approve the tax. If approved in the Aug. 8 special election and endorsed by the State Legislature, the tax will raise an estimated $60.3 million for Fair Park.
“We will be better than Epcot,” McAlester says. “They have some little fake villages (that represent countries around the world). We have an internationally important historic landmark people will visit just to see the art and architecture and sculpture.”
The members of the Fair Park, Yes! Committee cover a broad political spectrum and believe a restored Fair Park will be the one great attraction Dallas lacks – our Alamo, Harbor Place or Epcot. A revitalized Fair Park will make Dallas a destination city for tourists, tax supporters say.
If not, Fair Park could become the City’s Ebbets Field or Polo Grounds – one more last landmark.
Haven’t We Heard This Before?
For 20 years, preservationists have appealed to the public and private sectors to pay for impovements that would save the Art Deco building, sculpture and murals remaining from Texas’ 1936 Centennial Exhibition.
In response, voters approved $18 million in bonds in 1983 to improve Fair Park, and added another $9.3 million two years later.
As a result, visitors enjoyed an expanded Hall of State and Science Place, a restored Esplanade (the long, elegant fountain bordered by the large exhibition buildings) and band shell.
They also can watch the African-American Museum of Life and Culture rising along Grand Avenue. And the Friends of Fair Park are housed in the Magnolia Lounge, which was reclaimed six years ago with $700,000 in private funds.
But a million here and a million there barely keep the roofs from falling in these days, Fair Park supporters say.
Where Will the Money Go?
• Extensive renovations will bring the 12 original Centennial buildings up to code ($9.4 million).
• Water damage is destroying the park’s graceful sculpture ($2 million to restore artworks).
• Assorted historic buildings require various degrees of renovation ($10.9 million).
• The World Cup is coming to the Cotton Bowl in 1994, and the old stadium is a wreck ($23.1 million).
• Parking areas need expansion for another 5,000 cars, and security for the park should be beefed up ($9.9 million).
• The surrounding community needs parks and economic seed money ($5 million).
Fair Park, Yes! Committee members agree citizens don’t need another bond issue that will raise a few million and take years to pay off through increased property taxes.
But Bartlett, McAlester, Texas football legends Roger Staubach and Doak Walker, East Dallas councilmen Glenn Box, Chris Luna and Lori Palmer, and others agree a sales tax that will terminate by law on the anniversary of its birth is the most equitable way to collect the big dollars Dallas needs to save Fair Park.
And if the referendum passes, supporters say, private donors will add another $83 million during the next five years. The State Fair of Texas, which only in recent years has earned a profit, will be a beneficiary.
And Dallas will have a year-round showplace to entertain the home folks and bring in more tourist dollars.
The Opposition Speaks
To all this, Carona says: Maybe. But not with my taxes, you won’t.
While far too sensitive to his constituency to oppose Fair Park improvements – in fact, he serves as a board member on the Friends of Fair Park – Carona says Bartlett and company rushed forward with an “irresponsible, ill-timed plan” that residents won’t approve and that lacks support among legislators.
Dallas state Senators John Leedom and Ike Harris will help defeat the proposal in Austin, Carona says.
Fair Park, Yes! responded with its own list of legislators who support the sales tax, along with a similarly supportive environmental impact study, and asked that City residents be allowed to decide the issue.
Still, Carona says, any tax increase should first fund City libraries, which have suffered from budget cutbacks in recent months.
“While Fair Park is a very important asset for Dallas, this is not the time or the place to be raising $60 million in new taxes for that special interest,” he says.
To counter the sales tax plan, Carona proposes a revenue package heavily based on user fees he says could raise $80 million in three years.
Proceeds would be funneled into a regional development fund, to be distributed among Fair Park and other deserving institutions such as the West End Historic District and the Arts District.
Among Carona’s proposals:
• Privatization of park assets,
• Bonds to be repaid by Cotton Bowl user fees and an increase in the hotel-motel bed tax,
• An increase in the price of State Fair tickets, and
• A surcharge on concert and movie tickets, sporting events, and videocassette sales and rentals.
Carona also believes DART might be convinced to share half of its one-cent sales tax for a year.
The Velocity of (Tourist) Money
Pass the tax proposal and our investment will reap financial rewards, McAlester says. Quoting an economic impact study, she says Fair Park’s annual attendance will double by the year 2000 to more than 11 million – including 3.3 million out-of-town visitors.
Because so many of those new visitors will come from out of town, local expenditures will increase ten-fold to $129 million a year. In fact, McAlester says, more than 380 million dollars per year in new economic benefit will be realized if the plan is approved.
Bartlett calls Fair Park “the most underutilized asset in Dallas today.” Restoration will create “a magnet for economic development” for the City, he says.
What Does It All Mean To Us?
“The important thing to remember,” Carona says, “is Fair Park is but one of a number of assets that have been neglected by the City.
“If citizens of Dallas were to accept yet another tax increase, would Fair Park be the right priority?”
So why, then, should East Dallas vote for the sales tax to restore Fair Park now?
“East Dallas people tend to appreciate old buildings, because they live in them,” says Craig Holcomb, executive director of the Friends of Fair Park and campaign manager for Fair Park, Yes!
“Therefore, they appreciate the need to maintain and preserve those buildings.” Park board president Lois Finkelman says: “If my house were in the same shape as Fair Park, I would do anything to restore it. I’d borrow the money if I had to.
“If Fair park were shut down tomorrow, it would create a gap in the cultural and economic life of the City that could not be filled.”
But East Dallas residents shouldn’t be alone in appreciating Fair Park, says Judy Summers, president of the Greater East Dallas Chamber of Commerce.
“We’re comfortable with Fair Park. We know it’s safe to come here and that wonderful things go on here,” she says.
“But the rest of the city is not comfortable with Fair Park. They haven’t learned. That’s why we’ve got to do this.”
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