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Libertyland's Last Stand

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The Mid-South Fair board probably feels like it's been playing Whac-a-mole for the past few months. The game, in which the player holds a mallet and tries to hit the mole as it pops out of several holes, is slated to be auctioned off with other rides and equipment from Libertyland later this month. And yet, things keep coming up to stop it.

The amusement park's fate has been at issue ever since the Mid-South Fair, the body that has operated the park since its inception in 1974, decided to close it late last year. But due in large part to the advocacy group Save Libertyland -- in this case, the mole -- the fair hasn't been able to quietly close the park and quickly liquidate its rides and equipment.

Save Libertyland has waged a from-the-ground-up campaign to save and re-open the park, citing summer jobs and affordable family entertainment. They've studied the lease, courted amusement park operators in other states, and found documents to support the claim that the city owns Libertyland and its assets. In response, the city realized it owned the Grand Carousel and the Zippin Pippin and found its own evidence to prove it.

Though it still asserts it owns the rides (its primary argument seems to rest on the principle that possession is nine-tenths of the law), the Mid-South Fair board has halted the sale of the carousel and the Pippin pending the outcome of the ownership issue.

But the board still planned to sell everything else: skee ball alleys, ice cream machines, log flumes, the Sea Dragon, a climbing wall, and the Revolution roller coaster.

And then Save Libertyland popped its head up again.

"Even if you ultimately decided that you're going to let someone sell [Libertyland's assets] off to the four winds, shouldn't the city investigate whether it deserves some of the money?" asked Steve Mulroy, Save Libertyland spokesman, at a City Council parks committee meeting. "If we don't take action by June 21st, they'll dispose of the assets -- I believe city assets -- without any benefit to the city."

Council members were responsive to the argument.

"It appears they are moving forward with the idea that it's better to ask forgiveness than get permission," said council member Barbara Swearengen Holt. "It's like squatter's rights."

Councilman Joe Brown called the whole situation a shell game. Members of the fair board, in addition to publicly stating they are selling the rides and equipment to fund a possible move, apparently want to use the Libertyland area to expand this year's midway.

"Mid-South Fair doesn't own anything," Brown said. "It was just a tenant. The simple solution is just to tell Mid-South Fair to vacate. If they're not operating Libertyland, they shouldn't even be on the property."

But what seemed simple proved to be complex, as the council questioned what action they could take since the mayor is the city's sole contracting authority. After much debate, the committee -- and later the full council -- decided to instruct the administration to terminate the lease and to protect the city's assets pursuant to the terms of the lease.

But exactly what that will mean for Libertyland is unclear because the lease is subject to interpretation. City attorney Sara Hall could not be reached for comment, but there seems to be some reluctance on the city's part to go to court.

Mulroy told the committee that members of the administration thought its case for both the Grand Carousel and the Zippin Pippin was solid, but they were not willing to fight for the other equipment. Any ambiguity in the lease would mean a ruling against the drafter, ostensibly the city.

"My opinion is that the contract language is not ambiguous," says Mulroy, a law professor at the University of Memphis. "When you have a ... transaction where each group is represented by legal council, they jointly draft the contract."

Still, Mulroy considers the committee's action a "victory" and a "significant step forward." The group had hoped to facilitate a deal in which another company could begin operating the park by this season. Even though that is near to impossible, the decision means another company could be in place by next summer.

"The city becomes the sole decision maker," he says. "The city can no longer use the Mid-South Fair as an excuse. Now we'll have one party to work with instead of two."

But that doesn't mean the mole -- or the group holding the mallet -- will stop.

"I don't think there's any question that the city owns the equipment," said council member Dedrick Brittenum. "This body is not going to resolve this issue. It's going to have to go across the street, to court."

Mulroy agrees. "I think the Mid-South Fair is so recalcitrant that someone will have to take them to court. It would be nice if it were the city or the county, but if it's not going to be them, I guess it will be us."

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