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Taking Us for a Ride

Is the Mid-South Fair trying to sell historic city property?

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Like the carousel it plans to sell, questions about the Mid-South Fair keep going round and round.

The Mid-South Fair plans to auction Libertyland's Grand Carousel and Zippin Pippin as soon as July 1st, but questions still linger about its authority to do so and whether the rides actually belong to the fair or to the city of Memphis.

Travis Flee, marketing director for the Mid-South Fair, says that the rides are undoubtedly owned by the fair but hasn't provided any evidence to support the claim. Flee could not say what entity owned the rides before they came into the fair's possession or how much the fair paid for them.

"The previous owner is neither here nor there," says Flee. "We are a private company and do not intend to release documentation. We are confident that we are the owners."

But, according to a 1946 Commercial Appeal story, the Memphis Parks Commission bought the carousel from a Philadelphia company.

Earlier this week, city attorney Sara Hall told city council members that the rides do not belong to the fair.

"Both the carousel and the Zippin Pippin predate the 1974 agreement [with the fair]," says Hall. "We have asked the Mid-South Fair to provide any evidence that proves ownership."

The city is also still trying to determine whether it owns the park's other equipment and rides.

The Flyer obtained the original 1974 lease agreement between the city and Mid-South Fair for the operation of Libertyland. Under the agreement, the city and county agreed to finance 90 percent of the funds -- or about $7 million -- to create Libertyland. The money was borrowed with the understanding that the fair would repay it during the duration of its 20-year lease.

"This is where the issue becomes sticky," says Steve Mulroy, a law professor with the University of Memphis and a member of Save Libertyland. The contract does not specify if the lease transfers ownership of the rides and equipment to the fair.

The question has troubled the city for some time. In 1992, the city and county forgave the fair's remaining debt, $3.5 million. At the time, city finance director John Pontius addressed a memo to several officials, including then-Mayor Dick Hackett.

"As part of this settlement, it is important that we have a comprehensive understanding of our relationship," Pontius wrote. "In particular, I am interested in their rights to fairground property."

Even earlier members of the fair board thought the rides belonged to the city. In a Commercial Appeal article from November 20, 1987, former board president William Farris is quoted as saying, "The rides and buildings in the park belong to the city and county. It is their property. We simply manage it for them."

The carousel alone is valued at $1 million if sold whole. If divided into pieces, it could fetch about $3 million. The Mid-South Fair wanted to defray expected moving expenses by selling the rides.

Cindy Childress, vice president of the fair board, was quoted recently in the CA as saying that the carousel "needs to be someplace where the citizens of Shelby County can enjoy it. But at the same time, where we can get the value of the asset to assist us in case we're forced to relocate -- or to help us with improvements to the fair if we're not."

"As I read this contract," says Mulroy, "I am more convinced that the city has a strong case. The contract makes clear that the parties contemplated that the fair would have a 20-year 'lease' on the 'premises and improvements' without making a distinction between the two. The 'improvements' are the rides, equipment, and buildings making up Libertyland that were paid for with city and county bonds. No mention is made of the fair owning anything but rather leasing everything."

If the fair continues with the auction as planned, Hall says the city will file an injunction to stop the sale. The city is continuing to investigate ownership of other Libertyland rides and equipment.

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