Thursday, June 12, 2008

Agricenter Diminishes Shelby Farms Park Potential

We’re not sure of everything Agricenter International is trying to harvest on its prime 1,000 acres of public land, but much of it looks to us like just a bushel-full of embarrassment.

Put simply, it just gets clearer and clearer that the presence of this failed experiment just makes no sense on land that should have a more direct public purpose and public benefit.

While on its best days, we are hard-pressed to imagine that this was ever the best use for about 25% of Shelby Farms’ land, it seems incontrovertible now that it has become the dumping ground for ideas that seem to have only tangential bearing on agriculture and absolutely no relationship with the overall aesthetics of this precious natural resource.

Slap In The Face

While we try most of the time to remain in denial about Agricenter International, the obvious slapped us in the face once again as we drove through the road that meanders through its land on the south side of Walnut Grove Road.

If there is any single characteristic about these 1,000 acres, it is that they are dotted with eyesore after eyesore – a sloppy pay-to-fish lake, tin buildings, mulching operations that belong in an industrial area, stone operations, bleak parking areas, a stark RV park, and a hodgepodge of things that just seem to have no common thread pulling them together into a cohesive whole, much less into a pleasant, appealing use of this irreplaceable land.

While most of us gasped at the thought of shearing off the frontage on Germantown Road of Shelby Farms Park for commercial use, the irony isn’t lost on us that any proposed commercial use couldn’t be more of an affront to this unique green space than the operations of Agricenter itself.

Highest And Best?

It’s especially disconcerting to consider that Agricenter International officials would actually think this is the highest and best use of this land at a time when a master plan for the entire 4,500 acre footprint of Shelby Farms is being developed. Based on Agricenter’s history of thumbing its nose at any suggestions for being a cooperative partner in the park, much less the reasonable ideas for reducing the amount of land that it controls, it’s a cinch that it intends for the current uses to remain no matter what the master plan says.

In fact, if you are a gambler and are looking for a sure thing, put all your money down to bet that Agricenter smiles, acts like it’s willing to help create an exciting new park at Shelby Farms and then does whatever it damn well pleases. In other words, there is the definite prospect that whatever the master plan produces for Shelby Farms Park, there will be always be a mess on Agricenter’s 1,000 acres as a result of the incompatible uses that it allows to mar the Shelby Farms Park landscape.

Yes, we know that Agricenter International agreed to have its land included in the master planning process, but that commitment didn’t even go so far as to put up any funding for it. It’s awfully hard to conclude anything but that Agricenter is just playing the game while maintaining no intention to do anything differently, particularly the much-needed and imminently logical concept to put operations of the entire 4,500 acres under one umbrella organization.

Realm Of The Public

While the master plan that was chosen seems to be the most carefully modulated option, there was never any way that Agricenter was seriously going to consider any of the creative – and visionary - uses that were suggested for its 1,000 acres. As a result, while other cities are pursuing organic farms on public land (often with an on-site chef-run restaurant serving up the produce), urban farming and community gardening, we are left with land that might as well have a “no trespassing” sign on it for all the good that it is to the public.

These days, people who care about the future of cities talk a lot about the importance of the public realm. Landscape architect Shirley Kressel describes it like this: “Public spaces are the arenas where the collective, common life which defines us as a society is acted out, and where we come into contact with those who are like and those who are different from ourselves…In public spaces we are reminded of the most important civics lesson: We are all in this together.”

There’s 1,000 acres of the public realm that sends precisely the opposite message at Agricenter: “It’s every man for himself. It’s our land, and we’ll do with it what we like.”

Wasted Resources

Increasingly, cities, particularly successful ones, have realized that a well-designed, high-quality, distinctive public realm enriches the fabric of a city and contributes to its special sense of place. So, what exactly do the 1,000 acres of prime public land at Agricenter say about Memphis?

These days, there are even frightening rumblings coming out of Agricenter that it believes that under the master plan, its area of control should be expanded. Such is the delusion under which it operate. If anything, the land controlled with an iron fist by Agricenter should be reduced to the footprint of its headquarters building, ShowPlace Arena and the Farmer’s Market. All the rest should be returned to use by the public.

While Agricenter has put together a batch of new programs, many aimed at kids, no one there mentions any more the justification that was used in 1981 to give it public money. Then, it was promised that Agricenter International would 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.”

We’re still trying to figure out under which of those headings comes the mulching operation. Or the RV park. Or the stone operations. Or the fair. Or the subsidized office space.

Today’s Reality

Today, Agricenter International reports these compelling purposes to the IRS:

1. The Agricenter maintains a farmer’s market and a fishing lake open to the public.

2. The Agricenter raises farm crops and conducts related research activities. The Agricenter received $132,863 of donated seeds, chemicals, advertising and the use of equipment for use in these activities.

3. Various public programs and other private events held throughout the year are open to the public and further the public knowledge of agriculture. The Agricenter leases offices and facilities to agricultural related entities.

Even if you find these worthy enough to Agricenter, it’s impossible to figure out why it needs 1,000 acres to do them. And if it does, and county government thinks it’s that important, let the public sector find Agricenter crop land somewhere else in Shelby County but not on the site of what was promised to be a “21st century park.”

No Transparency

Even if you find it a worthy use of so much land, there is little justification for Agricenter’s institutional inclination to stonewall any questions of accountability or to dismiss any calls for transparency. If it is to dominate 1,000 acres of parkland, the public at least deserves to know the financial basis behind its decisions, to know who its vendors are and to have a clearer sense of who’s in charge.

Many of us were naïve in thinking that the master planning process would usher in a new cooperative relationship between Agricenter and the park. If it doesn’t, as we now predict, it’s past time for Shelby County Government to take a fresh look at its relationship with an organization that controls so much of its land with such little return to the public interest.

It’s now been more than three years since the special Shelby Farms Park Advisory Committee headed by Dr. Gene Pearson issued its wise recommendations for the 4,500 acres. Chief among those was the recommendations that there should be a single entity operating the entire area, eliminating the dueling entities and conflicting philosophies, and that the future of the entire area should be mapped out in a single master plan implemented by a unified organizational structure.

Wanted: Decider

Those recommendations are just as wise today as they were then, and regrettably, just as much in need of execution.

It’s patently peculiar how Agricenter is able to stare down anyone who suggests that a blade of its grass should be touched, but somehow, it’s always been treated as if it, not the park, is the single most important purpose of this coveted land. How else can anyone explain why government – mainly county government - gave Agricenter $20 million in public money while the park managed to get $1 million for a visitor’s center and that had to come from state government.

Once upon a time, Agricenter was a risk worth taking. However, it’s just one of those projects that never seems to be able to get on track, and its present purpose is so far from its original mission that it makes little sense to act as if the original agreement about the land still makes sense.

Let Us Pray

Again, here’s what Ms. Kressel said about a primary threat to the public realm. “The transformation of public space into a corporate preserve is an attempt by powerful elites to erase from our minds a consciousness of ourselves as people with goals which transcend a market-defined framework of social interaction and values which cannot be measured by the ‘bottom line.’ Above all, the privatization of public space is an attempt to diminish the democratic dreams of ordinary citizens and to make us forget that we have the power to achieve them.”

Amen. And amen.


Anonymous said...

The Old Fayette County Country Club in action. How much money did they spend on that "wildlife observation tower" on Germantown parkway that I've yet to see anyone actually using. Not surprising since it overlooks a beanfield. But they were more interested in "traffic count" of people who would drive by that white elephant than placing it where people could actually observe wildlife. Great idea about having an actual working organic demonstration farm there, good luck getting those Agricenter Neanderthals to buy into that kind of idea......Agricenter should be disbanded immediately.

Anonymous said...

How much is it costing me as a taxpayer, to run the park now? How much does it cost the taxpayers to run agricenter? What kind of free programs does the Park offer to children? These things are important to me, as a single parent, and a taxpayer. I (or more importantly, my kids)have been offered more from the agricenter than the park folks have ever done. In most cases the agricenter's activities didn't have a cost. They offered free buses for my childrens school to take a field trip out there to learn about plants. I have also seen the great plans for the park(at the clubhouse by the lake), they look great...but I don't think they are going to work. This town will never sustain something like what is being shown. I can't imagine what it will cost to build something like those drawings show. How much did it cost me to have all of all of that plan put together? I bet I could think of many other ways that THAT money could have been put to a better use. I just don't think it is a good idea to saddle the county with another(pyramid-type)failure. I am still paying for that mistake.

Agricenter International said...

To view the truly scenic postcards from Agricenter please visit our blog page

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:36 here; I'm a taxpayer and have 3 children and live close to Agricenter and Shelby farms. And I disagree with almost everything you've said, anon 2:13. Other than the farmer's market, I don't use anything Agricenter "provides." What is the value of "my" property that the Agricenter controls? We use Shelby Farms all the time. Your dredging up the Pyramid suggests you have an agenda....there will soon be plenty of defensive posts about Agricenter from lackeys, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

You are entitled to your opinion 8:36. I am to mine. I am asking the blog poster some questions, offering another point of view...I thought that was what this was about. No won't hear from me again. I will find another blog to discuss intelligent solutions. Somewhere with less name calling and whining. Good Luck to you in whatever it is you do. <<<2:13

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 2:30:

I'm sure the kids' programs are wonderful...except that's not why Agricenter was built.

The problem is that these programs come after $20 million in public money has been spent on a mission that was a failure. If we wanted programs for kids, we should have put the money into a facility that more directly was designed for that purpose or invested it to make Shelby Farms Park into its full potential. If there's a lack of programming at the park, it is the direct result of no similar attention being put into the park, which should have mattered most.

Smart City Consulting said...

Agricenter International:

If these pictures purport to capture the philosophy of your facility, why do you allow such outrageous ugliness in so much of your acreage.

Anonymous said...

Agricenter can take all the pretty pictures it wants, but are they denying that the pictures on your blog weren't taken on their property?

Every one should drive out there and see for themselves. It is a travesty what is going on.

Anonymous said...

It looks like Agricenter slapped together a blog because of you. What a joke. Someone should tell them that they misspelled Agricenter in its heading.

Anonymous said...

The postcards put up by Agricenter only proves how clueless they are. Does anything in those photographs say, we deserve 1000 acres of your public land. Hell, no.

Anonymous said...

How about taking some photographs from that godawful observation tower? Anonymous 8:36 got it right: it is the perfect symbol for Agricenter's understanding of real conservation. If our esteemed mayor had any guts, it have already run this people off our prime piece of real estate.

Agricenter International said...

Anon 5:44...Thanks for the heads up on the typo. I did kind of slap it together..."other side of the coin" kind of thing. Discussion is healthy, and we want equal footing to discuss from.

Anon we do not deny those pictures were taken on our property.

SCM... I PERSONALLY, as a citizen of Shelby County, feel more attention can be paid to the park. The park is a wonderful place with a tremendous amount of potential. I sincerely hope that the proposed development(the master plan) comes to fruition. I believe that the end result will benefit our citizens. As citizens, we are responsible for collectively selecting the right plan, and business model to build it, and make it all work. I think that we are going in the right direction, and are developing the right vehicle to make such a plan...a reality. ( as my personal opinion)

As moderator of Agricenter's blog I will forward your question of "ugliness". I am not in authority to respond directly. When I have an answer from Agricenter "officially", I will create a post.

I can promise I will forward the question.

This is a great forum for opinions. Opinions can lead to policy, but policy won't be ultimately decided here.

Smart City Consulting said...

Agricenter International:

Thanks for the continued "conversation." It's a welcome shift from the past, and you should be commended for it.

If you would be willing to answer our questions, as you seem inclined, we'd be glad to send you the seminal ones and we promise to keep it to a minimum.

Thanks again for responding.

Anonymous said...

I think there are several interesting questions raised in the original blog. First, a question that seems to run through the original blog and the comments -- how much is it costing Shelby citizens to run the Agricenter now? I imagine the original poster knows the answer though they chose not to include it, namely, not very much if any. The Agricenter is currently operating at a break-even position by virtue of the events and activities it hosts. There was an original investment by taxpayers that helped build the facilities that are now maintained primarily through the Agricenter's own resources.
It is also interesting that the recycling center is one of the photos posted as an eyesore. I personally believe in recycling. I think it is something I do that really helps the environment. The bin there is ugly, but I am glad it is there. I take all the color magazines I receive there for recycling. I am glad Agricenter believes offering a recycling site is valuable to the community.
I am not enamored with the bulk mulching facility, although I believe that center was originally located on Agricenter to help with mulching and clean up from storms in the area. But it does seem to have grown too large for the location.
But most importantly, the blog author is not trying to encourage cooperation. They have their opinion -- Agricenter should not have been formed, the land should not have been granted, the farmland has no place here, get rid of it. That's really it. All aspects of the post are designed to undermine the Agricenter and its existence.
Basically the author seems to be of the opinion that if the public is being served by Agricenter, then a Park could do it better anyway. Unfortunately, that approach and opinion just foments the distrust that seems to exist between the park and the Agricenter. Distrust that seems to make no sense; distrust that only prevents cooperation; distrust that only creates hurdles to the massive Master Plan going forward.
Finally, it is interesting that the original poster accuses the "powers that be" of playing it safe with the choice of the master planner. I reviewed the plans closely. Only one planner applied any decent level of practicality to the plan. The other two "creative" approaches bordered on the ludicrous. Seriously, one suggested irrigating organic farms with chlorinated water from a huge wave pool to be formed in the middle of the park. Of course this can't be done with organic crops. That same planner had outrageous financial assumptions built around the organic farms and never considered the impact this project might have on surrounding organic agriculture that would face potentially subsidized competition.
And the other, "creative" approach thought so much of the natural ecosystems in the area it would have pumped the Wolf River across Walnut Grove Road and let it "run down" across the property forming 8 - 10 new waterways. It looked pretty, but also looked like an eco-disaster in the making. Only one planner applied a decent level of practicality to the process and that planner was chosen.
Are we going to continue to diminish the potential of Shelby Farms Park by attacking, fighting, creating conspiracies, and disagreeing with actions taken 20 years ago? I believe the Master Plan and the new Conservancy give interested participants a chance to act cooperatively for the greater good. Take a different tack "smart city"; make some positive suggestions; earn your "smart" name.

Anonymous said...

anon 2:13, what, you thought everyone was supposed to agree with you?

Anonymous said...

One improvement county government could make regarding the recycling of cardboard is to double the number of pickups. Most of the time it seems the receptacle is overflowing all over the gravel road with cardboard detritus....I'm aware that the Agricenter appears to break even; when are they going to begin paying back some of the $20MM to Shelby County? Could that property be put to a higher and better use? Why does the public have virtually no input into the disposition of thousands of acres of publicly owned land? Where do all of the Agricenter Board members reside? Etc., etc.

Jen said...

It’s Jen here, from the Shelby Farms blog. Thought we should weigh in on this one. Though I’m usually bloggin’ about silly things like turtles and pop culture, I’m glad to be part of this important conversation, and I’m glad you opened it up, SCC.

Over at the park, we view our relationship with Agricenter as a partnership, and though I won’t speak for them, I’d be willing to bet they feel that way, too. The park isn’t perfect and neither is Agricenter, but we’re both trying to be better by working toward a vision that has real potential to change our community. Agricenter and the park are disparate things to most people. The master plan will find ways to physically link the north and south sides of the park, and by doing so, link the park and Agricenter in the hearts and minds of park users. We’re already connecting with one another. The Conservancy is committed to this partnership and has three Agricenter representatives sitting on its board. Open dialogue is important. Shelby Farms is one big park with many landscapes, and Agricenter is one of them. It sits among three Conservancy-managed landscapes—the Uplands to the north, the Lucius Burch Natural Area to the south, and the former landfill, BMX site and Ultimate Frisbee grounds to the west.

When we inventory the things that define us as a community, one’s gotta be the shared agricultural heritage of the region. The master plan is going to give Agricenter the opportunity to look to the future of their mission by delving into alternative fuels research and promoting locally grown food. One day, Agricenter research may even yield a piece of the answer for providing future energy needs. We’re particularly excited about the opportunity to supplement the current park programs by teaming with Agricenter on comprehensive outdoor education.

Shelby Farms will be the next great 21st century park, and it will bring us together in ways we haven’t imagined. We’ll connect with nature, connect with each other, connect with our bodies and health. The existence of public space implies collaboration. If you want a truly great public space, you need truly great collaboration. We’re holding hands on this one, and we’re in it to win it. And when it’s all said and done, the citizens of Shelby County will benefit from the teamwork of Shelby Farms and Agricenter.

So, slap a sticker on me and call me naïve, but this piece of land is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s greater than the controversies that have dogged it for years. Too often, Memphians are sold short when it comes to public projects, but this is not one of those times.

Agricenter Blogger, psyched that you’ve entered the blogosphere and looking forward to working with you.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 3:53:

You miss the point, we think.

We're not railing about what happened 20 years ago, and by the way, we weren't opposed to the creation of Agricenter International. We are definitely opposed to the use of 1,000 acres of public land for a purpose that is contrary to its founding purpose.

If you think the 1,000 acres are dispensable, let's open up the process for any organization that might have a good idea for it, including parkland.

Over the years, Agricenter has soaked up more than $20 million in public funding while the park side of the road begged for nickels and dimes. We think the Conservancy should go ahead with its master plan and ignore Agricenter, but that's just us.

If the best predictor of future behavior is the past, Agricenter will do little to contribute to the master plan either financially or conceptually or in implementing it. We hope we're wrong, but on this, they have been consistent for 20 years. They operate on one guiding principle: It's all about them.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 3:53:

We forgot to answer your question about how much Agricenter and the park are getting now. We don't know. While Agricenter is not getting operations money now, although it did for years, we're not sure how much is being paid each year in bonded indebtedness for capital improvements at Agricenter. As for the park, it's probably about $400-500,000, but we haven't checked in a couple of years.

Smart City Consulting said...

Why, oh, why does anybody think that the recycling has to serve as the welcome mat for the west entrance into Agricenter. Surely, there's a more discreet location, but it reflects that lack of attention to the aesthetics and sense of place that are too apparent on the south side of Walnut Grove Road.

Smart City Consulting said...


We'd never call you naive, and we admire your idealism.

We only wish we could share it on this one. We've seen too little evidence - in tangible financial or organizational support - from Agricenter in recent years to think that anything is going to change in that organization and in the end, there will continue to be two sides of Walnut Grove Road that remain unstitched together.

Unless Agricenter gets serious about joining into the vision and strategies of the master plan in a meaningful way and doesn't participate on the Conservancy just to protect its turf and if much of the 1,000 acres can be returned for public use (meaning, use by the public), then this land may have a chance to be greater than the sum of its parts.

But if anybody can do it, you can. God love you for trying. said...

The dude is absolutely right, and there is no question.