Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Agricenter President Could Usher In A New Era Of Communication and Cooperation

John Charles Wilson is a breath of fresh air.

In an interview with The Commercial Appeal, the president of Agricenter International admits what others there have refused to face for years. The facility’s founding vision and promises have failed.

In describing what was supposed to be a national center for agricultural technology and research, Mr. Wilson told about how much children enjoy the place today – with its pay-to-fish lake, its eight-acre corn maze, its fishing rodeo and his community outreach programs to teach forestry and farming to students.

While all of these activities sound like fun, it vividly paints the portrait of a facility that fits more into the framework of a regional park than an isolated facility commanding 1,000 acres of public land like a feudal lord.


Of course, no one at Agricenter mentions any more their 1981 justification for public funding: Agricenter International will be a “regional resource and technological center for all aspects of agriculture…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.”

Now, cheerleaders for the facility have lowered their sights, pointing to its importance in giving kids a chance to experience farm life. Left unsaid is why that requires 1,000 acres of the county’s most prized land at Shelby Farms Park, or if this is the highest and best use of a building that’s received more than $20 million in public subsidies.

Once the organization was disconnected from the financial artery of county government about 10 years ago, Agricenter International could no longer count on deficit funding each year from the public sector, and in its haste to reinvent itself, it floundered for years before it arrived at its present focus anchored in youth activities.

A Mixed Bag

It still has its mixed bag of events held in the building. Most have only tenuous connections to its agricultural mission. Lately, one of its biggest events was the Southern Women’s Show, and the newspaper coverage said that 22,000 people in three days attended the show. What it failed to mention is that Agricenter International stole the event from the Memphis Cook Convention Center, where it had previously been held. This in turn reduced revenues at the convention center, a building where the city and county governments are still responsible for deficit funding.

We are told that events rentals account for about 33 percent of the facility’s revenues; office rent accounts for about 20 percent; 10 percent from crops and the remainder from miscellaneous activities.

In its Valentine to the Agricenter, The Commercial Appeal quoted the economic impact study by Younger and Associates that the Agricenter generates $527 million in economic spin-offs. It makes that same firm’s prediction that the NBA would produce more than $1 billion in economic impact almost seem reasonable.

Based on the facility’s annual revenues of roughly $2.5 million, it would mean more than a 250:1 return on investment. Besides demonstrating once again how utterly meaningless these economic impact studies are, the report is merely a distraction from key decisions that need to be made about Agricenter’s future.

Over the years, Agricenter has shown an institutional inclination to stonewall any questions about accountability, shift in mission, iron-gripped control over the 1,000 acres or even modest proposals for greater coordination between the operations of the park and the facility.

Staying Alive

But our intent is not to beat up Agricenter International. That’s much too easy. Our purpose is to acknowledge that it is in fact an organization trying to stay alive despite the failure of its original mission. That happens to a lot of organizations, and even critics of the facility have to admire Wilson’s dogged determination to find a niche and his enthusiasm for his job.

However, it does seem time to address some critical questions about Agricenter International.

For example, it’s time for Shelby County Government to re-visit the resolution which turned over 1,000 acres to the organization. The fruits of that resolution -- a hodgepodge of buildings creating an eyesore along Germantown Road, a desolate RV park, a decrepit old farmer’s market building, an architecturally jarring ShowPlace Arena, and a series of buildings whose who look no more permanent that the trailers parked nearby – call out for a fresh look at the relationship between county government and Agricenter and a more logical allotment of public land.

Mr. Wilson exhibits rare honesty in explaining Agricenter’s activities, so perhaps, his leadership can usher in a new era of openness in considering these issues.


LeftWingCracker said...

I can't really argue with your comments, other than you'll have a hell of a fight on your hands with people who hate downtown and will ask where you would relocate the nearby Ducks Unlimited building and its annual Festival.

I am, though, interested in hearing what use you might have for that land.

Off topic, any comments on Chumney's proposal to save the Coliseum?

Anonymous said...

The future of Agricenter (buildings plus 1,000 acres) should be determined by the preparation of a Master Plan that is hopefully moving toward a starting date. For example, the Plan should determine why the "Cook Convention Center-East" is being run by an agricultural interest group.

The problem is the politics. Agricenter International, Inc. is like the Mid-South Fair, Inc. - a non-profit organization of civic elites with years of control over public property and isolationist attitudes toward the public interest. Their attitudes are - we own this because we produced a profit even though the land was free, the buildings were free and there was a public subsidy of our operations. The arrogance is breathtaking.

Smart City Consulting said...


Thanks for mentioning DU. We should have clarified that point. It has a multi-decade lease for a $1 a year, so we're not suggesting that it should be forced to move (in its own way, it makes more sense at this location than Agricenter itself); however, someone should talk to one of the world's premiere conservation organizations about giving back more to its home park. There's an awful lot of expertise sitting in the DU building that needs to be accessed for the good of the park.

In our mind, the north and south sides of the park should be restitched together to create a seamless place, rather than the feeling that "trespassers will be shot" if they wander too far afield on the south. The flat land being used by Agricenter is perfect for some ball fields, for example. We're sure the master planning process now under way can come up with some other uses that are greater benefits to the public than cash crops. It seems to us that if we place a public value on their being experimental crops in our county, there are much more appropriate locations in Shelby County than Shelby Farms.

As for Councilman Chumney's proposal for the Coliseum, we just can't keep from asking why we have such an aversion to actually closing an outdated building in this city. A quick search (we don't purport that it's definitive research) indicates that no city our size has two arenas of the size of the Forum and the Coliseum that are both being used.

Councilman Chumney's idea seems more like a justification in search of a preserving a building rather than responding to a real need that exists in the community. Community groups looking for space most often are looking for exhibition floor space or some rooms to hold meetings for a few hundred people, so we'd be interested in more information about the basis for this use of the building. There are other less expensive, and more conducive buildings available for the uses we've mentioned.

mike said...

Wow, you've got a bee in your bonnet this week. ;-)

I have to agree about squandered resources at AI. But you talk about "highest and best use" on the one hand and then suggest ballfields on the other? Try again, please.

My worry is that, once again, valuable public lands will be divvied up for private developers to cash in on. And we'll get strip malls, expensive McCondos, cheesy buildings and "carefully designed" public spaces that are inimical to real people use.

Smart City Consulting said...

Mike: The surveys of recreational facilities for the region show that we need more than a dozen more ballfields, baseball and soccer fields, and that's certain a higher use than bean fields. As we say, we expect the master plan to suggest something even wiser. As long as Agricenter has total control over the 1,000 acres, it can legally put anything it wants on that land, including all of the uses you mentioned, starting with strip malls on Germantown Road. Somehow, county government needs to have the land returned to its original uses as green space.

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