Dallas Couple Leading Fair Park's Future | KERA News

Dallas Couple Leading Fair Park's Future

Dec 13, 2011

For more than 100 years, a "marriage" between the city of Dallas and the State Fair of Texas has kept Fair Park going. But, it's not a marriage of equals. In this instance, one has money, one doesn't. KERA's BJ Austin says another couple is now at the center of the Fair Park/State Fair union -- and working to manage the "family finances."

Joan Walne is President of the Dallas Park Board. Husband Alan Walne is Chairman of the State Fair Board of Directors. Together they work to keep Fair Park healthy and growing. But they do it with very different bank accounts. The Park Board, led by Joan, manages Fair Park's 277 acres with shrinking city budgets and privately-raised funds. The State Fair continues to set attendance records, and the State Fair Board, led by Alan, decides how the millions made each year will be spent.

Alan Walne: We've had the biggest two fairs in the history of the State Fair of Texas in the last two years. And most state fairs across the county are going away. We're very healthy.

Not so much for the city's part of the Fair Park "family finances". Over the past three years, budget cuts reduced the Fair Park staff by 14 percent, from groundskeepers to administrators.

Joan Walne: The city did cut our entire marketing budget. That was helpful when they're putting an emphasis on marketing - and then we don't have marketing folks. Fair Park is running lean and mean.

And not running at all, in some instances. The $12 million restored Esplanade Fountain does NOT run its "dancing waters". The city has never budgeted money to do that. The historic fountain only "dances" at corporate-sponsored events.

Joan Walne says Fair Park looks to its best-known tenant to help out with a lot of things around the park.

Joan Walne: The State Fair puts an enormous amount back into the park in things you do not see - things like roofs and plumbing issues. They don't just rent the park and walk away.

And now, the State Fair is investing some $20 million to be more of a year-round presence. The Fair plans to open a summer midway in 2013. Alan Walne says the signature ride, a 500-foot observational tower, is already under construction.

Alan Walne: When you get up to the top, it'll make one or two or three revolutions. The ride will be open for the Fair next year, then the following May we hope to launch Summer Adventures.

Other features will follow, including a $12 million water ride and perhaps upgraded technology at Fair Park's IMAX theatre. A summer midway admission will also be good for no-or low-cost access to other attractions at Fair Park, like museums and the IMAX. Summer Adventures will cost about half the price of a ticket to Six Flags. Alan Walne says the midway is expected to bring half a million people to Fair Park the first summer.

And that is good news for Joan Walne, who is overseeing an exodus of Fair Park tenants. The Women's Museum at Fair Park went broke and closed in October. The Railroad Museum begins moving its trains to a new location in Frisco in January. And most exhibits in Fair Park's Nature and Science buildings - including the Children's Museum -- move to the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Victory Park for its opening in early 2013. But, the Walnes choose to look on the bright side.

Joan Walne: You know, Fair Park is always changing. The DMA was here. They found a new home. We replaced that with other things.

Alan Walne: And, it's change like there is in any other business. You see businesses come and they go, you know they evolve.

That evolution includes several new, annual events including the White Rock Marathon, City Arts Festival, Taste of Dallas, and Earth Day.

The Walnes say a Fair Park that is busy year-round, and able to sustain itself, is the goal. And they believe together, the Park board and the State Fair can make that happen. And the Walnes have a good track record of making partnerships work: they've been married for 35 years.