Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Unanimous Vote Shapes New Future For Shelby Farms Park

There is the political axiom that when the right people and the right timing align, they can change the world.

This week, they did in fact change the world of Shelby Farms Park.

The right people were Laura Adams, AC Wharton and Mike Carpenter.

The right timing was ushered in September 1 when the radically revamped Shelby County Board of Commissioners was sworn in, removing Walter Bailey and Julian Bolton from office and removing their predictable “fight to the death” attitudes toward any suggestion that operations of the park should be turned over to a private, nonprofit organization.

Light Years

And yet, even with this alignment, it’s hard to grasp how much has been accomplished in a place where seven months is considered the governmental equivalent of moving at light speed.

On Monday, commissioners voted unanimously to give Shelby County Mayor Wharton the power to enter into an agreement with a nonprofit group to manage the park and implement a master plan that turns the promise of the 4,500 acres into the reality of a world-class park.

Combined with the commissioners’ previous approval of a 50-year conservation easement and the Mayor Wharton’s appointment of a special committee to hire the firm to develop a master plan for the 4,500 acres, county government has adopted a green ethos unimaginable just a year ago.

Taking Bows

Success has many parents, so there will be plenty of people lining up to take a bow, but before history is rewritten, Mrs. Adams, Mayor Wharton and Commissioner Carpenter deserve special footnotes. Without any of the three, it’s hard to imagine that Shelby Farms Park would be on the cusp of a new era.

Mrs. Adams’ involvement began at the moment of Shelby Farms Park’s greatest setback, the failed attempt to create a conservancy in 2001 by Memphis business leader Ron Terry. Despite the presence of $20 million as an inducement and unprecedented community interest in realizing the full potential of the park, commissioners voted down the proposal after Commissioner Bailey led a hysterical political stampede that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Mr. Terry – who single-handedly elevated Shelby Farms Park to the top of the civic agenda – recommended Mrs. Adams as a member of his proposed conservancy, giving birth to a renewed passion for the park that led her to accept the presidency of Friends of Shelby Farms in 2002.

New Friends


Her leadership brought dramatic changes to the group – moving it from a marginalized anti-everything organization to one known for its political savvy and its willingness to find common ground where long-standing controversies could be resolved and support for the park could be expanded. Through an unrelenting attention to details and the seeming ability to be everywhere at the same time, she brought new focus to the agenda of Friends of Shelby County and a new respect for its work.

Along the way, she opened up lines of communications with government that had all but disappeared over the previous decade as Friends leaders seemingly assailed county officials for every problem of the park and questioned their integrity and their stewardship.

Within a couple of years under Mrs. Adams’ leadership, Friends of Shelby Farms Park had morphed from a disorganized grassroots group into the disciplined Shelby Farms Park Alliance and its blue-ribbon board.

Resurrection

Conversations between Mrs. Adams and Mayor Wharton eventually created the mutual respect that produced momentum for resurrecting Mr. Terry’s general concept for dramatically upgrading the park and empowering the private management to manage it.

(While The Commercial Appeal headline writer erroneously referred to the change as “privatizing” Shelby Farms, it’s a careless use of the term, because it is more akin to the Memphis Zoological Society’s role at the Memphis Zoo than Servicemaster’s management of the county’s senior citizens centers. Of course, the most obvious and notable difference is that the organization managing the zoo and the one that will manage Shelby Farms Park isn’t out to make a profit for a private business.)

Along the way, Mrs. Adams provided Mayor Wharton with information about the context sensitive design process, and he appointed a broad-based committee to use the process to end the 25-year-old controversy about the planned highway through Shelby Farms Park. In the end, the committee succeeded in reaching a breakthrough agreement for a new design and alignment for the highway, and it was not lost on the mayor that Mrs. Adams was instrumental to reaching the consensus that accrued to his political benefit.

Expanding The Vision

Encouraged by the prospects of achieving a vision that could turn Shelby Farms Park from a popular regional park to a park with national importance, not to mention the chance to cut county funding by moving responsibility for park operations to a nonprofit organization, Mayor Wharton took up the cause of the master plan and appointed a committee to write an RFP and select the national planner to develop a park master plan.

But, in the end, Mrs. Adams and Mayor Wharton needed a champion on the board of commissioners who could be an effective advocate for the park and act as floor leader for the resolutions for a conservation easement and private management. Commissioner Carpenter, whose inexperience in public office and youth were perceived as barriers to his ability to be an impact player, proved all predictions about his impact wrong.

He not only served as a good salesman, but remarkably, he managed a 12-0 vote on Monday, positioning himself as an emerging leader on the body. While he’s been widely criticized by Republican Party members for voting with the Democratic majority in support of a second Juvenile Court judge, it’s beginning to look like a sage maneuver that’s positioned him to deliver up the votes to pass resolutions popular to his East Memphis base, including cuts in government budgets for non-essential services like parks and shifting operational responsibility to non-public management.

Celebrations


All in all, it’s a momentous time for Shelby Farms Park. No, those of us who support a plan to develop it into the eastern anchor for a Greening Greater Memphis network didn’t get everything we wanted. Despite passage of the new governance model by the board of commissioners, it seems like Agricenter International is being rewarded despite its consistent arrogance in deliberations about the future of the 4,500 acres and for treating the 1,000 acres under its control as a private preserve for which the public deserves no accounting.

That’s why it’s hard to understand why Agricenter has two members on the board. Under the resolution approved Monday, the Agricenter International board – a nonprofit private organization - will remain in place as well as the public Agricenter Commission that’s supposed to be providing oversight. Why give Agricenter a place at the table when it consistently refuses to cooperate and coordinate with park operations and whose only consistent talent is at disrupting any meaningful discussion about the best future for the entire park footprint?

It’s almost as perplexing as to why the commissioners required that someone from the Shelby County Conservation Board must be on the new park management board, since it’s an increasingly irrelevant group.

Nits

Also, the commissioners essentially guaranteed that the new management board will be an unwieldy 15 to 20 members. That’s because the commissioners, in their infinite wisdom, mandated eight members to the new board, which indicates to us that at least an identical number will be needed to offset the votes of government officials and political appointees.

In addition, in approving Commissioner Henri Brooks’ amendment to add a second commissioner to the new board, it’s layered in a more politicized environment for its decisions.

But, this isn’t the point to nit pick the details. The vote this week was a long time coming, and it proves again that all good things are worth waiting for.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

With all the negative news coming out of Memphis of late, this is a much needed positive step forward.

Chuck Johnson said...

Dear Smart:

With the Agricenter Commission remaining in place (unless state law is changed), will the new "park management board" provide oversight to actions of Agricenter Commission or will new board merely replace the powerless Shelby Farms Board? You talk about the County Commission's 12-0 vote as establishing "management" over 4,500 acres, which includes 1,000-acre agricenter. Will new board be able to exercise management authority over Agricenter Commission?

Smart City Consulting said...

Chuck: Regrettably, the Agricenter structure will be unchanged by the new park management board and governance structure. However, by being on the new board, Agricenter will be a party to the master plan, and it's our hope that the planner will point out some compelling better uses for that 1,000 acres. Then, perhaps, the vision of an alternative future of that land will create a groundswell of political and grassroots support that demands changes in Agricenter's operations and use of the land. At this point, it's a travesty that at the center of our county, we have a 1,000 acre bean field. We'll contribute to a fund to buy Agricenter land in Fayette County if it will get out of our park.

Tyler said...

Granted I'm rather ignorant as to the larger purpose of the Agricenter, and its role in the scheme of Shelby Farms, I hesistate at the idea of removing a 1,000 acre bean field from park land.

Though I don't know where those beans go, how they're grown, or anything really, I think it might not be in the city's best interests to replace some form of urban agriculture with more park land. Conservation is important for the greening of Memphis, but we should consider the sustainability of the city as directly influencing and contributing to that green future.

According to this source: http://www.sustainlane.us/city_study_44%20Memphis.jsp Memphis' dependence on local agriculture for food is at an atrocious low (certainly one of the larger factors contributing to global warming). The Agricenter, I believe, is also hosts one of the city's only two farmers' markets.

I'm by no means defending the Agricenter, the people running it, its actions, etc. I'm simply saying we might consider that 1,000 acres of urban agriculture, if used properly (farmed organically and sustainably for the use of local residents; perhaps educational programs could be incorporated as well) , in the long run might be of more good to the city and its future than a new bike trail.

Smart City Consulting said...

Tyler:

Thanks. I guess the pivotal question for us is whether this is the highest and best use of 1,000 acres of prime land, and even if we leave it for an agricultural purpose, we think it should be opened up for a public use -- perhaps a model farm that can be visited by the public, or perhaps a true urban park where members of the public has its own plots. We don't see much public purpose in Agricenter leasing land to various companies that trash up the land and offer no access to the public.

While we think that Agricenter International has long outlived its usefulness and has failed in every objective set out for it when it was founded, we do think that it should be allow to continue its work - Showplace Arena, farmers' market, and its office building. Frankly, the RV park should have been eliminated long ago. It's just another eyesore on another prominent site, and amazingly, Agricenter hasn't managed to plant one sapling to improve the place in the 15 years that the RV park has sat there.

We would agree with you that there are some public ag uses that could make sense for the 1,000 acres. We just don't expect Agricenter to be the group to come up with them.

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