Once More, With Feeling

For a first-class park, Shelby Farms should be run by a conservancy, backers say.

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As they did previously with the riverfront, the arena, and AutoZone Park, political leaders are entrusting leading citizens to spearhead and take over another stubborn public project. This time it s a long-range plan to turn Shelby Farms into a first-class park. The Shelby County Commission voted Monday to hand the 4,500-acre park to an independent conservancy with a privately funded $20 million endowment. A majority of commissioners brushed aside concerns of colleagues who argued that wealthy donors were essentially buying the right to set public policy for a piece of property bigger than some suburbs. If you re not rich and affluent you don t have a place in the destiny of this project, said Commissioner Walter Bailey. Others noted a trend in this latest deal that comes on the heels of approval of the new NBA arena. We as commissioners are continuously giving up more and more of our authority, said Marilyn Loeffel. These are the main assumptions of the plan: Shelby Farms should be renamed Shelby Park. The vast majority of citizens don t benefit much from what the park has to offer. An improved park could make a significant contribution to community health. None of the acres should be commercially developed. Private funding, absent so far, can make improvements better than public funds. In 20-30 years the park will be at the center of a metropolitan area of two million people. Agronomy will be phased out and the shooting range must go. The road belongs on the northern edge, not in the middle. And the people who fund the $20 million park endowment will get to throw their weight around a little bit and name the members of the board. If some of that is news to you, you re not alone. Several commissioners and vigilant park-lovers in the audience said the same thing and asked for a delay. They lost, although they will surely fight another day because the ordinance requires two more readings and the park master plan hasn t even been started. The prime mover is Ron Terry, retired CEO of First Tennessee Bank. Others include the Burch Porter & Johnson law firm (the natural area along the Wolf River is named for founding partner Lucius Burch), the Hyde Family Foundation, and the Plough Foundation. Terry is a hands-on leader. He said he hit up 45 people for donations, and only seven said yes. He fielded several questions at the meeting and has worked with conservation groups for years. Shelby County mayor Jim Rout was a little off his game. Maybe he s battle weary. He pitched the conservancy plan and the proposed board that would implement it, but he also shortchanged the power of the county mayor and county government. What makes the mayor more public than a body of taxpaying citizens? he asked skeptical commissioners. Nothing. Except for the little matter of elections. Rout s plea of poverty on behalf of government was odd, to say the least, in light of the just-approved $250 million arena and the new $60 million main library. A government that can do those things could also spiff up Shelby Farms with trees, benches, trails, and things to do. It s a matter of priorities. The cost of running Shelby Farms and Shelby Showplace Arena -- $700,000 a year -- is not as onerous as Rout and others made it seem, especially given the number of people who use the park. One thing missing from the discussion so far is developers. Development is a dirty word in Shelby Farms/Park. No one has made the case that intelligent development can be an aesthetic plus, a point of interest, and a revenue producer for neighboring public spaces, as it is downtown along the riverfront. Apparently the scars from the colossal battle over the proposed planned development of Shelby Farms 30 years ago are enough to keep anyone from fighting that one again. It is striking how different the values are downtown and in Shelby Farms. The Riverfront Development Corporation, with 100 or so acres to play with, is willing -- even eager -- to convert some of Mud Island River Park to private use and even build a 70-acre land bridge in the harbor for private development to fund public improvements. Shelby Farms, with enough land to support a herd of buffalo and five times the acreage of Central Park in New York City, is sacred ground. One of the members of Friends of Shelby Farms who spoke at the meeting, Lois Kuiken, suggested that even soccer fields are an improper encroachment. (The proposed plan is much less restrictive, banning such things as stadiums, arenas, and racetracks for animals or motor vehicles.) The RDC is trying to unlock property in the so-called Overton blocks downtown for redevelopment. The Shelby Park Conservancy would lock up thousands of acres to keep it away from development for the next 100 years. Corporate sponsorship from FedEx and AutoZone is a desirable and essential part of downtown development. Corporate sponsorship in Shelby Farms is a terrible idea, said Commissioner Buck Wellford. So it went. The dog-walkers, tree-huggers, naturalists, bikers, lovers of quiet space, and members of the Nature Conservancy have got themselves more than 4,000 acres of park. The game plan is to hire a master planner, get lots of public input, and get things rolling in a couple of years. Walnut Grove Road is scheduled to be replaced by a new road on the northern edge of the park by 2012 or else all bets are off and the funders of the endowment can bail out. It will be a new experience for the Nature Conservancy, a well-regarded national organization that generally acquires property in the boondocks. Said Scott Davis, who represented the conservancy, The opportunity to protect an area this large in an urban area doesn t come along very often.

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