You've probably seen those bumper stickers that say "Shelby Farms: Keep It Green" or "Don't Split Shelby Farms." A more cynical one might say "Shelby Farms: Keep It Boring." Or "Shelby Farms: Pay to Play."
Last week, a committee that has been studying the future of Shelby Farms for a year gave short shrift to a developer's suggestion that selling or leasing 2 percent of the park's 4,700 acres might produce several million dollars for the county, which needs every dollar it can find to provide schools and services and pay interest on $1.7 billion in debt.
Developer Waymon "Jackie" Welch Jr. and his daughter Dawn Kinard say the 100 acres north of Walnut Grove Road along Germantown Parkway would sell for $35 million or lease for $4 million a year. Kinard suggested the site would be attractive to Bass Pro Shops or Cabela's hunting and fishing store. Shelby Farms, which is bigger than Shiloh military park and five times the size of Central Park in New York City, is already home to the headquarters of Ducks Unlimited and an annual outdoors festival.
Shelby County mayor A C Wharton said earlier last week it would be "suicidal" to raise the county property tax rate in the face of a 48-cent property tax increase proposed by Memphis mayor Willie Herenton. Apparently, it is also suicidal to suggest selling or leasing land in public parks because Wharton didn't include that in his list of alternatives. The Shelby Farms Advisory Committee also showed little interest in Kinard's proposal. Members deadlocked 7-7 on a vote to create a conservation easement, and they have not ruled out user fees to pay for park maintenance and improvements.
Money-losing Shelby Farms has its downtown equivalent, of course, in the string of parks and white elephants along the river, including The Pyramid, Mud Island, Tom Lee Park, Greenbelt Park, and Martyrs Park.
What no one with any clout has come right out and said so far is that both Memphis and Shelby County have much more park acreage than they need or can afford. Even Overton Park has a city motor-vehicle maintenance yard tucked into the southeast corner of its hallowed Old Forest.
The revenue that might be produced from 100 acres of Shelby Farms is only an educated guess, but the appeal of Bass Pro Shops and Cabela's is undeniable. Memphis already has a Bass Pro Shops Boat Sportsman's Warehouse near Shelby Farms, but the company, which is 26 percent owned by Nashville-based Gaylord Entertainment, is known for monster stores that become tourist attractions. As National Public Radio and several newspapers have reported recently, second-tier cities are chasing those superstores as avidly as Memphis and Nashville went after the NBA and the NFL.
The mayor of Oklahoma City, which offered $17 million in incentives, reportedly likened a Bass Pro Shop to "having a home baseball game 365 days a year." The store is part of a new development called Bricktown that includes a minor-league baseball park. Pearl, Mississippi, a suburb of Jackson, issued $65 million in revenue bonds for a Bass Pro Shop and a 7,000-seat baseball stadium opening next year. In Nashville, a Bass Pro Shop is one of the main tenants at Opry Mills, which replaced Opryland theme park. Buffalo gave Bass Pro Shops $66 million in incentives to move into a vacant auditorium. Mesa, Arizona, put together an $80 million package.
The Cabela's store outside Detroit claims to be the biggest tourist attraction in Michigan. Fort Worth gave Cabela's $40 million in incentives for a new store.
Memphis and Shelby County, which never met a cockamamie sports pitchman they didn't at least flirt with, are strangely ambivalent about going after the hunting-and-fishing boys with public land or buildings as bait. Of course it would be a gamble. Bass Pro Shops and Cabela's might be as lasting and lucrative as riverboat casinos or as faddish as Hard Rock Cafes and factory-outlet malls.
But local governments have run out of options. Mississippi got the casinos. The Tennessee Lottery is in place. Property tax increases are "suicidal." A city payroll-tax proposal was beaten three-to-one in the November election. Consolidation is a non-starter and might not save money anyway. Elected officials won't support big cuts in services when Memphis and Shelby County have so many poor people.
That leaves the sales tax, from which Tennessee gets 60 percent of its revenue, and underused public assets. Retailing and tourism hit Memphis and Shelby County right in their sweet spot, the 9.25 percent sales tax. And in their present form, Shelby Farms, Mud Island River Park, and The Pyramid are either closed or little used much of the year. It's time to figure out what's essential and expendable, then hang out the "Space Available" signs.