For decades, Fairfield Lake State Park has been a fixture of family life for Brenda Pate. She’s spent countless hours at the park, an expanse of timber, trails and water 6 miles northeast of Fairfield, a town of 3,000 south of Dallas and east of Waco. “My children were raised out there. We went boating every weekend,” she said. Along with locals like Pate, anglers from across Texas have been lured here by the park’s main draw: a 2,400-acre lake stocked with bass, catfish, perch and other fish. Fairfield Lake holds the state freshwater record for the largest red drum caught (36.83 pounds).
The Pates are not alone: The Fairfield park clocked 67,500 visitors last year and reeled in $351,500 in revenue, according to state data.
But now the lake — along with the rest of the 1,460-acre state park — has an uncertain future. The property is owned by Vistra Energy, which until February 2018 operated Big Brown Power Plant, a coal-fired facility just north of the park that used the lake water to cool its generators. Through a lease agreement with the company, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has run Fairfield Lake State Park since 1976. Last year, in the face of dwindling profits from coal power generation and tightened environmental regulations, the company opted to decommission the power plant and its adjacent coal mine. Now Vistra is looking to sell the property, and there’s no guarantee that the new buyer will be interested in continuing to lease the land to the state.
The current lease agreement for the park’s land expires in October 2020, but the park could close sooner depending on when the property is sold, Vistra spokesperson Meranda Cohn said. Pate, who directs the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce, said the potential closure could be a gut punch to the tiny town’s economy. Folks who come for the park sometimes end up taking home a basket of peaches from Cooper Farms, or they traipse downtown for antiquing. No park would mean less foot traffic for local businesses.
“Small businesses in our community struggle anyway,” she said. “I don’t want anything to happen to our visitors who come in town — I want them to have things to do and have places to go.” Pate noted that the possible closure could be a double whammy for Fairfield; when Big Brown and its coal mine closed, the town lost 200 jobs and one of its biggest employers. Cohn, the Vistra spokesperson, said the company determined “adequate market interest” existed for the park property after Big Brown was shut down. The company has officially decided to sell, and “the bid process is ongoing.” Cohn said she was not at liberty to discuss details or the status of the negotiations.
In a legislative hearing last week, state Senator Charles Schwertner, a Republican from Georgetown who represents Fairfield, asked TPWD Executive Director Carter Smith about the situation. “It would be our hope that we could continue to see that lease extended with the new buyer of that property so that the state park did not go away, but ultimately we’re going to be at the mercy of the new owner,” Smith told Schwertner.
Data show that recreational opportunities in rural communities have helped stave off population loss, an increasing problem in big swaths of rural Texas and the rest of the nation. Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan think tank based in Montana, released a report in January showing that people were more likely to move to counties with ample recreational opportunities. The people who moved there also tended to have higher incomes than those who settled in communities without such draws. “Recreation may make the difference between gaining or losing population, particularly in rural counties,” the report concluded.
If Fairfield Lake State Park closes, it could also exacerbate another problem: the overcrowding and underfunding of Texas state parks, where repair projects can seem interminable and prospective visitors are frequently turned away from some of the state’s grandest scenic areas. At the Hill Country’s Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, for instance, it’s common for a mile-long line of motorists to stretch around the attraction on a busy day; many of them are ultimately turned away. “State parks are the No. 1 tourist attraction in Texas,” John Crompton, a professor in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University, told the Observer. “The state park is the economic engine of many rural counties.”
At the moment, all Fairfield residents can do is wait to see how the Vistra property’s sale shakes out for their community. “It’s a very busy park. We hope that whoever does buy it takes that into consideration,” Pate said. “I’m trying to definitely keep a positive attitude about it.”