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Protect and Conserve

Overton Park advocates push conservancy model.



A portable toilet in the parking lot is the only relief in sight for families at Overton Park's playground.

But real restrooms are just one change Overton Park advocates say could come about if Midtown's largest park is managed by a nonprofit conservancy. Those advocates launched the "Speak Up for Our Park" campaign this week with two meetings to gather input from park users on a conservancy model proposal.

"The conservancy would be similar to the one that manages Shelby Farms," said Naomi Van Tol of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park. "With the Shelby Farms model, the county owns the land and signs a management agreement with the nonprofit conservancy."

Similar conservancy models have also been successful in managing Central Park in New York City and Piedmont Park in Atlanta.

The city's parks department manages Overton Park, along with 159 other Memphis parks. Although the city currently pays for Overton Park maintenance, "Speak Up" co-chair George Cates said the department's budget prevents it from doing anything beyond the most basic upkeep.

"The parks department has been leaned down so much, they don't have the money to do the job for the entire park system," Cates said. "The whole city should be concerned. They have an impossible challenge."

Aside from keeping grass cut and trash picked up, Van Tol said a conservancy would allow for bigger park improvements, such as adding real restrooms and updating playground equipment. There are some restrooms in the golf course clubhouse, but they're located a far distance from the playground and greensward areas.

Another major concern is Memphis Zoo overflow parking on the greensward, but Van Tol said the zoo is planning a parking garage for the northeast corner of their property.

"It would be a big, expensive project that the city would have to chip in on," Van Tol said. "But the greensward should be for people. It creates a negative feeling when you're surrounded by cars, and there's dust and noise and pollution."

The decision to push for a conservancy comes on the heels of Governor Bill Haslam signing legislation to designate 126 acres of the park's old-growth forest as a state natural area, protecting it from future development.

"But the park is 342 acres, not just 126," Van Tol said. "We all feel like the open, public spaces are really being neglected. The park doesn't have a dedicated funding source."

Cates said all the park's properties — the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Memphis College of Art, the Levitt Shell, and the Memphis Zoo — support the conservancy plan as a solution to park funding issues.

At the public meeting on Saturday, more than 200 people showed up to fill out a survey. The survey also is offered online at, and volunteers will be walking around the park with clipboards to gather opinions through early August.

If there's enough support for a conservancy when the survey ends on August 8th, the group will have to take the proposal up with the Memphis City Council.

"If the conservancy is formed, our intent and plan is to work in close accord with the parks department," Cates said, emphasizing that the city would still own the park's land. "They will have a seat on the conservancy board."

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