Monday, August 15, 2005

Agricenter's $20 million In Public Funding Failed To Carry Out Its Founding Mission



In response to Thursday’s blog on how Memphis and Shelby County lead Tennessee in the number and amount of tax freezes, we received several calls and emails. One reminded us that Agricenter International and all of the businesses leasing space and land there don’t pay property taxes, because they are on public land.

It points up the problem in trying to calculate the true amount of property taxes that are being waived in Shelby County. Just the taxes waived by industrial development boards get the amount to about $65 million, but the public accounting never even includes city and county property, such as Shelby Farms Park, where Agricenter is located.

Of course, the Agricenter story is about much more than waived taxes. Its story also is about direct funding from property taxes and control over 1,000 of irreplaceable parkland. While others debate the future of Shelby Farms Park and how to transform it into one of the U.S.’s great parks, Agricenter interests have generally stonewalled any effort to develop an overall master plan for all 4,500 acres in the heart of Shelby County.

Perhaps, it is understandable since the Agricenter compound has crop production that produces about $350,000 a year in revenue; a 140,000 square foot exhibition center with leased office space; a 300-lot RV campground; a farmers market and nursery; Ducks Unlimited’s headquarters; Showplace Arena and several unsightly buildings that dot the landscape.

Its founding mission in 1981 was to be a “regional resource and technological center for all aspects of agriculture,” and when it opened, it professed to being a “showplace for cutting edge technology and equipment…a repository for information in a state-of-the-art data bank…a prominent center for innovative research…the site for permanent and changing exhibits…and the host/sponsor/organizer for significant agricultural conferences, seminars and conventions on emerging themes.”

Those were formidable goals, but unfortunately, along the way, Agricenter became nothing more than a publicly subsidized office development. It is now a sad dowager when compared to its high hopes of 25 years ago.

Agricenter has been given $19.4 million in public money since it opened ($15.6 million from county government), which seems especially ironic since it sits on parkland that has scratched for every penny it has ever received from the county budget. The only real investment for the park was the Visitors’ Center, and it was built with a state grant of about $1 million.

Remarkably, the county lacks full oversight control over the facility, because of the cozy relationships between the Agricenter Commission (the county board which is supposed to provide the checks and balances) and Agricenter International itself.

The good news is that for the first time in fiscal year 2003, Agricenter finished in the black with revenues of $2,053,184 and expenses of $1,917,353, producing a positive cash flow of $135,831. Agricenter received yearly operating money from Shelby County Government until 1996 when the county administration put its foot down and told the board it was time for the project to be self-sufficient. However, county government continues to pay for capital improvements at Agricenter, and despite the original lease calling for lease payments, there is no evidence in county files that such payments have ever been made. In fact, during the spring of 2004, the Wharton Administration even forgave the $250,000 loan made to Agricenter.

The original lease said Agricenter would be used for the promotion, support and advancement of agriculture and agri-business, and “no other use of the leased premises shall be permitted.” Based on the signs on Germantown and Walnut Grove Roads for events, that language seems to have been forgotten long ago. We are told that during this calendar year, no agricultural events are booked into the exhibition hall.

In recent years, Agricenter’s revamped its mission to include “recreational opportunities” in addition to agricultural research, educational programs, environmental conservation and natural area preservation. These are noble goals, but would $20 million in public funding been invested in an operation dedicated to them? In fact, it would be easier to make the case case that this mission would fit more appropriately at Shelby Farms Park.

Agricenter was once a risk worth taking. It was just one of those projects that never seems to be able to get on track. Unfortunately for taxpayers, government has trouble pulling the plug on projects that get off track, and even though the county administration first served notice in the early 1990’s to Agricenter that the county was disturbed about its lack of progress, it continues to get county help and concessions even today.

It’s time for Shelby County Government to spend at least as much money and devote at least as much attention to the real regional asset – the park itself. Looking to the future and to the need to attract the creative class to Memphis and Shelby County, it is the park that will be our competitive advantage in the global economy.

The Wharton Administration has given more attention to the park than it has received in 10 years, and soon, it says an important announcement about the future of the park will be made.

Meanwhile, the story of Agricenter is a cautionary tale. The tale of a great park at Shelby Farms remains to be told.

5 comments:

Friends of Agricenter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Friends of Agricenter said...

The Educational Programs offered at Agricenter have taught numerous Memphis City, Shelby County and home school students the importance of conservation, water quality, ecosystems, agriculture (food and fiber), and much more.

Agricenter is home to a variety of Agriculture research projects, crop production, and wildlife habitat.

Providing a place for small farmers to sell their produce direct to the public is the goal of the Farmer's Market, as well as, providing fresh fruits and vegetables to our senior citizens through a cooperative effort with the Tennessee Department of Health and Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Agricenter, and the Shelby County Government.

Catch'em Lake is a fantastic recreational destination for families who want to spend time fishing and having a picnic.

Research the facts on the Agricenter website: http://www.agricenter.org.

turnerarch said...

Friends response is accurate concerning the activities that surround the center and their involvement should be commended in a city full of uninvolved citizens.
However, the initial post remains valid. Each of the activities mentioned are of the type one would expect to find in a great urban park.

Concerned... said...

The truth behind it all...

With regards to your recent article on John Charles Wilson by Casey
Conley...

I just wanted to take this opportunity to clarify some misconceptions
in this article. It is mentioned how he still brings his work ethic
from the farm to Agricenter. What he brought was exactly how he treated
his "field hands". He by no means is a glorious leader as presented by
various media. He barks, demands, micromanages and even yells at
employees. He doesnt allow them to do their jobs efficiently or
effectively.

I will say that he is very dedicated. He works long hours and most
of the time is at Agricenter 7 days a week. Someone who claims to be
this grand Christian, family man sure doesnt leave any time for anything
exept work in his life. If he would simply allow his employees to do
the jobs they were hired to do, it would allow him to work a normal 8
hour day and 5 days a week. He demands too much control of everything.

He isnt "just like any employee" at all. He is nothing like anyone
at Agricenter. He isnt even friendly. He offers low pay and a poor
working environment. Agricenter is under staffed, the staff is under
appreciated and poorly treated and when people go to him with issues, he
blows it off to nothing more than tattling. He alone has created a
hostile work environment where more than 70% of Agricenter's employees are
looking for other employment opportunities.

He also mentions in the article that he can "tell them everything
about a cotton plant or a soybean plant from the seed to the harvest"; I
know for fact that he has even had to tell customers, etc that he cant
answer their question about the farming/cotton, etc b/c the technology
has surpassed him as a farmer. He had to direct them to call our Farm
Manager. The position of President of Agricenter has outgrown John
Charles Wilson's abilities. Agricenter even had, at one time, a Vice
President but since Wilson's arrival, that position was never refilled b/c
of his need for control.

About his NASCAR obsession: I find it funny how he has the funds to
purchase a racecar while neglects to award necessary raises, praises
and promotions. The car's livery has a very small Agricenter logo
present on it. It primarily has Wilson Water Works or something to that
effect pasted all over it...I love how he manipulates a sitation to his
benefit...this man never ceases...

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