In 2016 the Dallas City Council approved construction of an 18,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art audio and video studio in Fair Park. Four years later, the space is a renovated but still empty shell and the entire $5.1 million budgeted for the project has been spent plus an overrun of about $500,000.
Even worse, the project seems to have been almost forgotten at city hall.
Conceived in 2014 by a cadre of advocates including local colleges and the Dallas school district, the studio was to be funded with cable franchise fees earmarked for local public access and governmental television programming, which includes broadcasts of public service messages and meetings.
To be called the Dallas City News Network, it was pitched to city leaders as a learning center, information hub and public access studio that would be available to local school districts for instruction as well as for production of independent local programming. The studio was to be built in an existing building at Fair Park.
Several advocates who pushed for the studio are no longer in the picture, including former city spokeswoman Sana Syed, who led the initial presentation to the council.
Syed left her city job in 2017. She said the original plan died due to several factors, including bureaucratic inertia and job changes involving key people.
“When I was there, there was $11 million in [cable money] that was going unspent, left on the table,” Syed said. Her idea was to rally a group of academics and practitioners to create the center.
When the studio was approved in 2016, supporters said it would be completed within a year. Construction did start in 2017, but halted within months, as crews ran into problems and needed to go back to the city to ask for more money.
After a series of setbacks due to what a city memo labeled “the historic nature of the building,” the studio space is ready for its first walk-through, said Gwendolyn Schuler, director of the city’s Public Affairs and Outreach Office, which is overseeing the operation.
“This is something we inherited,” Schuler said, referring to her agency’s oversight of the project. She has pored over the paper trail connecting the concept with where it is today. Schuler found that while meetings were held with some of the schools and parties who expressed interest, “unfortunately, there were no agreements in place. Nothing ever solidified as to how this building was going to function.”
In fact, other than a 2016 meeting at which supporters gathered a few Dallas school district students and some administrators from local schools, the media center plan was never publicized in a way that could have built momentum.
“For two years, the city didn’t want anything to do with this,” Syed said. The council approved it, but the project was shelved amid leadership changes at city hall.
Spokespersons for Dallas County Community College District and the Dallas school district were unfamiliar with the media center plan.
“My understanding is, this has not been revisited by the city in terms of a partnership with us,” Robyn Harris, spokeswoman for the Dallas school district, said in a text message.
“No one at DCCCD has knowledge of a contractual agreement that involved a broadcasting studio at Fair Park or any related dual credit program at a DISD high school that currently has such a contract,” the college said in a statement. “There may have been discussions with previous DISD administrators who supervised dual credit, but there is no existing program of which the district is aware.”
For decades, Fair Park has been part of a major revitalization effort of the area southeast of the entertainment district of Deep Ellum. The city in 2003 approved a plan to revive the 277-acre site, but while millions of dollars have been spent, the area continues to be a project in progress rather than the finished showpiece city leaders have hoped for.
The studio is in an area of Fair Park that, under the 2003 plan, would have roadways rebuilt, buildings refurbished, and a parking garage.
In November the city released yet another proposal to complete the Fair Park revitalization. The new plan makes no mention of the audio-video studio.
In addition to the cable fee money, the city has given the Public Affairs and Outreach Office $25,000 to be spent on “programming support and initial operational expenses,” for the studio, according to an April memo.
The memo also spelled out long-running construction problems at the site, including “required and necessary additions” to the scope of work.
It noted that while the construction began on schedule, contracts that would dictate the use of the building were never done. The reason? According to the memo, it was due to the “lack of community engagement in the concept for the [media center].”
The cable money once funded Dallas iMedia Network, which was the local cable access station. But that network folded in 2009 after several years of dwindling funding. The operation’s director, former Dallas County Treasurer Lisa Hembry, was being paid $100,000 a year, which she said came from both the cable franchise income and fundraising by the iMedia network.
Hembry said that the new studio is fanciful, considering most colleges have video production studios, including some also built with the help of cable franchise fee money.
“Why would they want to join that?” she said.
Schuler said that with the construction finished, she and her colleagues are going over a list of equipment needed to outfit the place, which will then go out for bids.
It’s taken so long to get the building done, even the list of video gear that was to be used has become dated, she said.
What the city will have when the equipment has been installed is an operative studio in Fair Park that needs some customers. Schuler has no time frame for opening it, since the equipment bidding process will mean more delays.
Syed meanwhile insists that she still has local colleges and schools on board, but “I can’t get anyone at the city to meet with me.”
Schuler said that the city is still trying to figure out “what will be the best use for this building.”
“It doesn’t make sense to have [the studio] sitting there and not have a plan for it,” Hembry said.
Has the time finally come for Dallas to have its own public access programming, as most major Texas cities have?
“The public access would not be my decision,” said Schuler, a veteran city administrator who spent time in San Antonio and Tacoma, Washington. “That would involve higher-ups and that would mean operating dollars from the general fund.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].