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Planned Obsolescence

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It's a good thing the city can't suffer motion sickness. Because all the ups and downs, twists and turns, and loop-de-loops surrounding the former Libertyland site are enough to make anyone sick.

Last week, in an attempt to remedy widespread vandalism and theft damage at Libertyland, city councilman Myron Lowery proposed appropriating $800,000 to bring the site back to its previous state of benign neglect. But at the very same meeting, Memphis CAO Keith McGee admitted that Mayor Willie Herenton will announce plans for the Fairgrounds site February 20th, and those plans do not include Libertyland.

In a virtual roller coaster ride, Kansas-based amusement-park company T-Rex has been actively pursuing the Libertyland site since 2006, but each time they go up, they come right back down. One day it will look like they'll be operating the park in the near future; the next it will seem the park will be demolished.

Most recently, the City Council directed the administration to sign a letter of intent with the company. But the latest snag has been damage from vandalism and theft of copper at the park, which would increase T-Rex's estimated initial cost to get the park up and running.

Law professor, county commissioner, and Libertyland champion Steve Mulroy brought his case to the council for loaning T-Rex the money.

"It's going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to move, store, and restore the Grand Carousel. Maybe even $800,000 or a million dollars," Mulroy said. "Why not spend that money and leave the carousel right where it is and refurbish the entire park?"

He also mentioned that the renovations would be self-sustaining, as opposed to the recently completed traffic roundabout on Mud Island, which had a similar price tag.

But the city administration, in the form of McGee, changed tactics and its tune, claiming that the majority of damage at Libertyland was caused by buyers retrieving what they bought at auction.

"The footprint you see is missing items, not destruction," said McGee. "Libertyland has been closed since fall 2005, so no one has been maintaining it. We've been providing security ... to prevent theft."

McGee's implication was clear: If the damage is not due to theft or vandalism but simply the condition of the property post auction, then the city shouldn't need to lend T-Rex $800,000 or change the terms of the lease.

It's not a bad strategy for the city, shifting the onus onto T-Rex. The administration is clearly not interested in saving any part of "LittleBitty Land," and if T-Rex won't or can't afford to take over Libertyland under the new circumstances, the mayor can say he's not to blame.

But he may be in for a surprise.

When Herenton makes his recommendations for the Fairgrounds property this week, expect a chorus of healthy debate ... and not just from Libertyland supporters and naysayers. Judging from several recent events, the citizens of Memphis have a renewed interest in exactly what is going where.

Last week's forum on a greenline from downtown to Collierville is probably the most startling example, with over 1,000 people in attendance (read more about it on page 11). A Saturday morning speech by former Portland, Oregon, parks and recreation director Charles Jordan just two days later was also packed.

And in terms of future urban planning, Memphians seem awake to the possibilities. The city has had a number of charrettes and planning sessions in the past two years: from Broad Avenue to the medical district to Brooks Road.

The Fairgrounds property is no more important than any other area, but it's in the heart of Memphis. The city's Fairgrounds reuse committee presented an array of options in 2005, but the council wanted an economic breakdown of the various prospects.

No matter what the mayor proposes -- most likely a combination of residential and retail components and the new stadium project he presented New Year's Day -- the people of Memphis will be thinking and talking about it and, more than likely, acting on it.

Jordan attended the greenline meeting and called it one of the "most impressive gatherings" he's ever seen.

"They stood there for two hours and didn't leave," he said of the standing-room-only crowd. "That's commitment."

That level of engagement is bound to be a driving force for something, maybe even a change in local leaders.

"Something is on the horizon for Memphis. I don't know what it is, but, God knows, something is happening here," said Jordan. "If anyone gets in the way, they're going to be trampled."

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