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Why DID Dallas’ Christian Book Expo Flop?

by Jerome Weeks 26 Mar 2009 8:37 AM

Michael Hyatt, president and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, and the creator of the book fair, offers his analysis of the horribly low attendance. One basic fact should be remembered: The Christian book fair was planned two years ago before the current economic slide. Otherwise, Hyatt says the venue was too big (“The enormous scale […]


Michael Hyatt, president and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, and the creator of the book fair, offers his analysis of the horribly low attendance. One basic fact should be remembered: The Christian book fair was planned two years ago before the current economic slide.

Otherwise, Hyatt says the venue was too big (“The enormous scale of the Dallas Convention Center only highlighted the smallness of the crowd”). But then, he was the one who’d planned on 15,000 to 20,000 people when only 1,500 showed up. The timing was wrong (it coincided with spring break), they shouldn’t have charged for the event and they should have spent more on marketing.

But he also blames Dallas’ downtown — for widespread attitudes that must make the Arts District folks concerned: “As I discovered in talking to locals, no one wants to come downtown for an event. The challenge and expense of parking is just more hassle than it’s worth. Plus people were concerned for their safety, especially at night.”

It’s hard to counter the last idea. I remember soon after I moved to Dallas, there was a rash of carjackings. People often asked me about how I could live in a dangerous neighborhood (lower Greenville). Yet a great many of the carjackings occurred in the suburbs, even near malls. It didn’t matter; it was widely perceved as an “urban problem” (translation: racial).

  • Matt M.

    Regarding the perceived safety concern, has anyone looked into why this persists? I’ve lived downtown for almost four years now, pretty much across from the convention center. I haven’t experienced any problems in that time. Although, I do think the convention center and city hall could use some better lighting at night. The lighting they have seems more about showcasing the buildings than utility for pedestrians.

    I think it’s hard to get readers motivated to attend a book fair. Reading is such a private, solitary action. (Matters of faith perhaps doubly so.) I have a hard time understanding how you share that unless you’re reading sci-fi or fantasy. Those genres encourage participation from their readers. That said the fantasy conventions aren’t about just the books. They focus on bringing people together around ideas, worlds and characters.

  • Downtown is not inviting. It could be.
    First we have to admit the basic problem, or city planning 101. When a highway dissects a neighborhood, it kills it. Note that circling downtown is a dead zone where the vibrant neighborhoods before the highways have died. The one exception is the Uptown area.
    The main changes to revitalize it must be a city planning effort. Right now every move is a single developer effort that supports some rich guys. Overall development that supports many will work.
    First off – get rid of the cars. There is no reason anyone should drive through downtown – period. They should either drive to downtown or around it. Then make Main Street a pedestrian walkway from downtown to Fair Park. Over night the entire route would light up with business as would the areas around it. We would have the world’s biggest mall – Downtown Dallas / Deep Ellum / Fair Park. It would be a world attraction. No money down needed, just real smart city planning for the good of all not just some greedy single developer.

  • nmlhats

    Two words: Fort Worth.

    Fort Worth has plenty of free parking at night and on the weekends, plus bicycle cops all over the place. It may be all funded by the Basses, but it sure makes a difference in attracting people to downtown FW.

    Dallas needs to think in terms of making the soon-to-be-more-lively(?) arts district something like Sundance Square. It’s probably not affordable or reasonable to cover the entire downtown area, but how about at least the arts district and the adjacent blocks?

    Also–Parking at the Convention Center is pretty easy in my experience–that should not be an excuse for Hyatt.

    • 1. Matt. M: I’ve been to dozens of book fairs and festivals all over the country. Actually, they get plenty of attendance when done right, and their appeal can be far outside just the sci-fi genre. Just think Texas Book Festival in Austin. You do need a kind of ‘critical mass’ of interesting authors, mixing big popular draws with ones that will attract more serious readers (who otherwise might blow off the whole deal as just another book promo). You also need the right location. The Convention Center is not attractive, not particularly because it’s downtown or because of its parking. It’s just designed to contain a lot of display booths and keep people trapped inside — and that’s the model for an industry convention (like the huge-and-secular Book Expo America), not a popular, for-the-public book festival, where strolling, access to food and children’s attractions are big factors. For any book fair other than the Christian, I would have tried something like Fair Park, but it suffers from the same ‘deadly and difficult’ stigma that attaches to downtown. For the Christians, I think Hyatt’s idea is right, although I hate to see downtown lose yet another attraction: The Christian book fair probably should have been scaled back in ambition and headquartered at one of our many mega-churches.

      2. Tom, your repeated call for making downtown a giant pedestrian mall is a non-starter and always will be for this simple fact: Dallasites won’t walk far in 100 degree heat, they never have, never will and I can’t blame them. Add Dallas’ extra-long blocks (compared to Fort Worth’s shorter ones) and those blocks’ long stretches of concrete and parking lots, and you have a death march. Forget removing all the cars. Plant a lot of trees. A lot of trees along every street that’s possible. Shade can cut the heat to a much more tolerable 80-85 degrees. Watch the way people do walk downtown, along Main, for instance. You’ll see many of them switch to the other side of the street just so they can walk in the shadow of a building. And if you’re going to be dictatorial and ban anything, ban the Underground. It sucks pedestrian life off the streets and separates the city into the haves (office workers) and the have-nots (anyone outside who doesn’t know that all the restaurants are inside and under the office towers).

      3. nmlhats, I have eight words for you: Sundance Square isn’t all of downtown Fort Worth. Sundance Square looks and feels safe because it’s private property. It’s owned by the Bass family. So the vast majority of those bike cops you see are actually private security. You want to feel alone and un-safe, try walking down to the southern end of downtown Fort Worth. There are long stretches of darkness and emptiness, the kinds of thing that spook many suburban Dallasites about any ‘urban existence.’

      The bike cop presence is a comforting visual presence as much as it is a real deterrent. Dallas’ downtown BID (business improvement district) has taken a cue from that (and other downtown BIDS) and sent out its own force of bikers, but they’re few and far between. They have a much larger area to cover. The Arts District folks may want to think of something similar — in addition to the increased lighting and other pedestrian friendly amenities they’re planning. But you’re right, the ‘downtown stigma’ persists and it’s hard to shake. Partly, I blame all those TV programs that show any cityscape as dangerous, any wall with even minor graffiti as a sign of urban anarchy. Years ago, when the theaters were hopping in Deep Ellum, I often argued with people about the area: They’d never go there; it’s too dangerous. I looked up the stats — it wasn’t. The city’s largest police sub-station is a couple blocks away. But then some highly publicized crimes did occur, and they only confirmed people’s worst fears.

      • nmlhats

        The perception is always the kicker. I lived in the French Quarter of New Orleans (for about 1/4 of any given month) for 15 years and worked in the Quarter for almost 25, and it was always a struggle to get locals to come down there to explore the great shopping, entertainment (not Bourbon St…) and dining available. It was and is one of the safest parts of town but it’s an uphill struggle to get people to look at actual statistics instead of holding onto false impressions. I once even lost a newly-hired assistant who decided not to relocate to N.O. because of that perception. No matter how many stats I could point out, it was a lost cause.

        • Ditto for visiting Manhattan, let alone living in New York. I’ve been to Manhattan at least once a year every year of my life since I was 21. I lived there twice. Nothing violent or criminal ever happened to me there — unless you count the city towing my car twice and one aggressive panhandler.

  • Jerome, they do along the river walk in SA, and they do during the State Fair here. I would and I’m from Dallas. Also the street would be filled with cool things like refreshment carts, etc. And why not golf carts to move you along if you can’t walk it. Remember no cars, means no parking lots on that street. You could easily get an electric people mover to go up and down the street, or clean and green neighborhood buses. Circling the area.
    It would revitalize downtown (and Deep Ellum). It would give it a civic center. And it would tie DT into Fair Park and keep that going all year. IMO it’s a great idea.

    • The Riverwalk only proves my point. It’s covered with trees. It’s practically the only shady spot in all of San Antonio. In addition to the trees, because the Riverwalk is sunk below the normal street level, even buildings that are only four or five stories tall provide welcome relief from the sun.

  • Oh and I forgot this important point. You could have police walking their beat along these pedestrian walkways, and/or on horses, to make it safe. And remember your city planning about eyes on the street. When people are out of their cars, walking and watching – its much more safe as well as socially interactive.

  • Well with no cars, you can add trees – all the ones you want. OR just put a canvas across the entire street. These are minor quibbles to a major improvement.
    Tech note – when the NPR staff responds to a post, it somehow cuts it up and deletes some of it as it did here.

    • But if you plant trees and provide shade and that encourages people to stroll around, then you’ve succeeded in what we’d want in a downtown — pedestrian, urban liveliness. There would be little reason to take such a huge, drastic move as banning all cars from a one-and-a-half square mile area — when, in fact, problems with parking are already one of the big beefs suburbanites have with coming downtown. In your proposal, there would be no traffic downtown, and therefore no parking lots. So if I want to conduct some business at City Hall, I park my car on the other side of I-30 and walk iover into the downtown no-car pedestrian mall?

      Dallasites won’t do it. And frankly, I don’t see how it gains you anything that lots of tree-shaded avenues wouldn’t.

  • Jerome, This isn’t a do everything at once kind of idea. You start with Main and only Main Street as a pedestrian walkway connecting FP to DT, and go from there. The best city planning is one that is allowed to grow and not set in stone by some city planner. By simply closing off the single road, you open the door to everyone that owns property on that street and on the streets around it.
    Now downtown is virtually all lawyers and gov. people. And a ghost town the rest of the time.
    Yes, with my idea, you have to allow for some parking. And emergency vehicles etc. None of that is such a big deal at all. If malls can handle a lot of cars ,then downtown can too and co exist with the pedestrian areas – where you could actually breathe. Again no one has to go through Downtown with their cars. Major traffic should go around, or to DT. Eliminating the through traffic will do a lot of good in every way.
    And remember people walk in the open in the summer at Six Flags, at sports events, etc. And think about the fun at night when it’s cool in the summer.
    Major cities like London, and San Francisco, etc aren’t building more roads to enable cars (like the submarine path we are planning along the Trinity), they’re restricting cars and traffic, and turning roads into walkways. That is the future. Dallas seems stubbornly going the wrong way yet again with its ‘let’s go back to last century’ thinking.

  • Jerome Weeks

    Thanks for proving my point about trees and shade once again. Customers at Six Flags hated standing in line in the sun, so the company eventually built those long, shaded entrances to popular rides so people could wait in (relative) comfort. Six Flags also planted trees and made sure the open-eating areas were shaded, so people wouldn’t have to be out in the sun all the time.

    As for sporting events, the unforgiving lack of any shade at the Cotton Bowl is a major reason both the original and the new Cowboys stadium were designed to be enclosed — and one reason the Cotton Bowl failed to draw the same sort of crowds. Providing some sort of roof or shade was a chief design element in the proposals for renovating the Cotton Bowl.

    As for London and San Francisco, they’re both built on the 19th century downtown grid model — like New York City. I happen to like such cities and I dislike what freeways and parking lots do to cities as much as anyone, but cities like LA or Dallas simply can’t transform themselves into grid downtowns by banning cars or turning a street into a pedestrian mall. Again, if the point is to encourage pedestrian, urban life, preventing entrance to cars does little when people already don’t want to drive to downtown or park there.

    On the other hand, giving people a cool, shaded place to walk or sit or picnic amid the blistering heat of Dallas would likely attract more people than emptying a street.

    Look at downtown Fort Worth near Sundance Square — as nmlhats (and lots of other people) have longingly done. There’s plenty of traffic and parking lots, yet it’s a livelier, more pedestrian-friendly place than most of Dallas. Banning traffic would actually add relatively little to that appealing urban mix and layout. One beneficial pedestrian feature that Fort Worth has (with all its cars) that Dallas won’t (even without all its cars): Short city blocks and mostly low-to-medium rise buildings, many of them older. A more human scale, in other words, instead of Dallas’ mile-long blocks and gleaming, inhospitable towers.

    You want a car-less, open street in downtown Dallas? We already have one. Take a look at the plaza in front of City Hall. That used to be a street, it’s chained off from traffic — and it’s utterly sun-baked and lifeless.

  • Have you walked Main Street? It’s very much shaded now. And as to short block – look at all of Deep Ellum.
    Once the street is empty of cars, then you can fill it with amenities like any other park area.

    • So, in other words, Main Street in downtown Dallas is just like downtown Fort Worth — all it needs is to be carless, something that downtown Fort Worth isn’t and apparently doesn’t need to be lively and pedestrian-friendly. Your theory that removing the cars is the cure-all for downtown’s problems doesn’t answer why much of Fort Worth’s downtown is doing perfectly fine with cars.

      As for Deep Ellum’s lack of pedestrian traffic these days: It was noted 75 posts ago, several highly publicized violent crimes in the area, allied with a trend shift to more upscale clubs, has crippled clubs in Deep Ellum. Otherwise, how would you explain the fact that Deep Ellum was quite lively — with plenty of cars — 10 years ago?

  • Parking was never an advantage of Deep Ellum, and neither was the traffic. Both Dallas, and Fort Worth would do better with less traffic – and the fumes of traffic as well.
    Back to police. Two things that would make my idea safer – 1. police on foot, or bicycle, or horse, and two the idea of ‘eyes on the street’, the city planning idea of the more eyes looking around, the safer a street is. Thus safety in crowds instead of isolated streets.
    Most of this is just basic city planning 101. I wish I could say I invented these ideas, but they are widespread and well known.