News » Cover Feature

The $20 Million Question

A private conservancy wants to take over the stewardship of 4,450-acre Shelby Farms. Will it be a "great big backyard" or "Shelby Country Club?"


Cover story by John Branston and Mary Cashiola

Additional reporting by Simone Barden and Bianca Phillips

At the Ducks Unlimited Great Outdoors Festival this weekend, an estimated 100,000 people will jam a noisy corner of Shelby Farms to shoot firearms and bows and arrows, roar around on four-wheelers and SUVs, scramble up climbing walls, paddle canoes, cook chili and duck gumbo, watch lumberjacks make wood chips fly, and poke around in tents and camping equipment.

And after three days, the festival will shut down and the crowds will disappear along with most of the activities. Then Shelby Farms will go back to being a place where people stroll around a lake, walk their dogs, hang out in parking lots, pick strawberries, and gaze at a herd of bison. And, of course, sit in traffic jams on their way to or from work.

Somewhere between these two extremes lies the future of Shelby Farms when it becomes Shelby Park.

If the Shelby County Commission follows through on its initial approval, all 4,450 acres of Shelby Farms will be turned over in July to an independent conservancy that will use a privately funded $20 million endowment to make improvements over several years. A master plan will be commissioned to fulfill the vision of a quiet, free park protected by a conservation easement and forever off-limits to developers.

The resulting park will truly be one-of-a-kind -- 13 times the size of Overton Park, five times the size of Central Park in New York City, bigger even than Gettysburg or Shiloh military parks.

The Memphis Flyer and other local media have previously reported the views of park visionary Ron Terry, former chairman and CEO of First Tennessee National Corporation, as well as the dissenting opinions of Shelby County commissioners concerned that "affluence buys influence" and that public officials are giving up too much control of too many projects. In this story, the Flyer takes a look at Shelby Farms from the perspective of the people who use it every day. We interviewed more than 60 park-users of all ages as well as staff and volunteers in virtually every corner of the park, from the riding stables to the strawberry fields to Patriot Lake to the shooting range.

Most people were at least vaguely aware that changes are in the works for Shelby Farms, but few of them grasped the magnitude of the plan or the size of the park itself. Asked how large they thought Shelby Farms is, people guessed anywhere from 100 acres to 1,500 acres.

"I like it just the way it is, and I wish the people who want to develop this place would just leave it alone," said Wes Wolfe. "It's just like a great big backyard."

The majority of concerns we found were fairly mundane -- goose and duck poop around Patriot Lake, a general lack of bathrooms, not enough parking or playground equipment, and shoestring maintenance. Park officials, strapped for funds and personnel, did not disagree.

"Cleaning up goose poop is a full-time job," said Steve Satterfield, interim superintendent of Shelby Farms.

The staff has its hands full just cutting 600 to 700 acres of grass every week. The Shelby Farms operating deficit is expected to exceed $500,000 this fiscal year, which is one of the reasons for turning it over to a conservancy.

Some users would like to see big-ticket improvements that are impossible under the current budget.

"I think it would be nice to have a public swimming pool," said Ruth Rike, who has been coming to Shelby Farms for 32 years to walk and pick strawberries.

"They need something other than just a park, like a little golf course," suggested Wendy Lopez. "They need something more for kids than just a play area."

Over at the public shooting range, Bill Gregory was glad to have a chance to vent to a reporter about the plan to close the range this year and relocate it to an unspecified place.

"We pay to come out here," he said. "It's $7 to shoot. Nobody else pays. No one pays to fly a kite, ride a bike, or walk the dog. We pay. I don't know where we'll go when this place closes."

Those ideas are likely to be unpopular with the conservancy, which will be oriented toward passive recreation and public health, based on its vision statement and proposed bylaws. But if our interviews made anything clear, it is that just about any idea, no matter how seemingly innocent, has fierce proponents and detractors.

Take shade trees.

"I think more trees around Patriot Lake would really improve Shelby Farms," said Rhonda Clark.

Don't tell that to the Tornado Alley Sailing Club.

"Last year, they started planting trees at this lake, which is the only open lake around here," said Lee Shackelford, sailing on the lake with friends. "But they don't realize that every tree hinders the wind we need to sail."

And it may take the wisdom of Solomon to decide what to do about the ducks and geese. Little children love to feed them; others, tired of stepping in goose poop, would like to feed them a load of 12-gauge shot.

"We have hundreds of newly hatched goslings," said Satterfield. "We've been talking to wildlife resource to get rid of them. If they learn to fly here, they'll probably learn to stick around. They migrate back here and nest here."

Then there is the issue of roads.

"Everyone's scared of parking lots and I'll probably make some people mad by saying this," said Satterfield, "but on Saturday morning, all the lots are filled. People don't have any alternative but to park on the grass."

That means the grass won't grow, and the compacted soil contributes to the erosion of the park. There are similar issues with roads into the park's interior. By minimizing roads in the past to preserve the park's pastoral nature, officials unwittingly encouraged people to drive off-road to get to the out-of-the-way places of the park.

"From a conservation point of view," said Satterfield, "I think everybody could live with a solution where we provided them with some more roads [inside the park]. Right now, [off-road driving] is uncontrollable."

History: A $200 Million Asset

Keeping all of this in perspective, Shelby Farms is the sort of "problem" any city would love to have. No other major urban area has so much undeveloped land located so close to the geographic and population center of the county. The people backing the conservancy -- Terry, the Hyde Family Foundation, Mike McDonnell, the Plough Foundation, Lee Winchester -- are lifelong Memphians with decades of involvement in conservation and civic causes. A $20 million endowment would fund both short-term and long-term improvements that would bring thousands of new visitors to a cleaner, prettier, and more interesting park.

But by focusing single-mindedly on passive parkland and conservation, county residents are oversimplifying the history of Shelby Farms and leaving millions of dollars of potential revenue on the table.

Shelby Farms was never intended to be a 4,450-acre park -- urban, suburban, or otherwise. Its origins predate the term suburbia. In 1928, Shelby County bought 1,600 acres to relocate the Penal Farm, miles away from the outskirts of Memphis (Shelby Farms today is inside the city limits of Memphis but is run by the county.) By 1946, the farm had grown to 4,450 acres. In the late 1960s, development was lapping at its edges and a prison farm was an anachronism. The county considered selling all or part of it. Boyle Development and the Maryland-based Rouse Company proposed a huge planned development that would have accommodated 40,000 residents and 12,000 housing units. Over several years in the 1970s, the plan was defeated by a coalition of environmentalists and developers. By 1976, county officials were so weary of the haggling that they offered to transfer Shelby Farms to the city of Memphis. But then-county mayor Roy Nixon vetoed the plan.

There has been sporadic development of Shelby Farms since then, notably Patriot Lake and the welcome center, Agricenter International, Shelby Showplace Arena, and a couple of restaurants. The closest thing to a commercial development is the headquarters of Ducks Unlimited, completed in 1992, mainly through the efforts of former county mayor Bill Morris and businessman Billy Dunavant, an avid hunter. The one- and two-story headquarters building houses 160 employees.

Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit organization dedicated to wetlands conservation and waterfowl hunting, has a sweetheart lease. It pays no rent for 40 years.

"We give the county up to 500 hours of free consultation on wetlands and other conservation issues every year," said chief financial officer Randy Graves, who is talking to the Agricenter about extending its lease for another 40 years.

The offices and parking lots of Ducks Unlimited are so unobtrusive and heavily landscaped that many people speeding by on Walnut Grove Road don't even realize they're there -- except during the annual Great Outdoors Festival. The event jams the park with sports enthusiasts, shuttle buses, exhibitors and shoppers, and kids getting a taste of activities that either are not allowed or soon will be banned inside Shelby Park, such as skeet shooting, archery, and four-wheeling. Other less testosterone-charged recreations like dog training, canoeing, biking, and hiking would be enhanced under the conservancy plan.

"We're pretty excited about it," said Graves. "At first, we were a little nervous, but I have personally been attending some of the meetings with the county and Ron Terry. The Outdoors Festival would be exempt from some of the restrictions, and there would be no abatements on us as a tenant except for a new entrance if Walnut Grove Road goes away."

In general, Shelby County government has made little effort to attract commercial sponsorships in Shelby Farms, and most members of the county commission and the proposed conservancy are opposed to them in principle. Ducks Unlimited, however, has no such qualms. The Great Outdoors Festival has 15 sponsors (technically, it's the Ducks Unlimited Great Outdoors Festival presented by Suzuki). Like Memphis in May, it also charges an entrance fee which brings in over $1 million. The attendance suggests that people don't mind paying $10 to come to a park if you give them something to see and do.

Other special events at Shelby Farms over the years have included the Starry Nights driving tour at Christmas, a Christian concert and festival, a Civil War reenactment, the Tour de Wolf bicycle race, and a farmers' market. County officials have shunned efforts to build a golf course or a zoo. Even a golf driving range, which could bring in enough income to pay the annual operating expenses with little impact on the park, was rejected. A contract for a paddle-boat concession was signed but has not been fulfilled.

Projected revenue for the year ending June 30, 2002, is $2.1 million, mostly from Agricenter International and Shelby Showplace Arena. Excluding those, the park was projected to bring in only $391,000, including a Christian rock concert which was canceled, costing the park $150,000 in revenue. With expenditures of $775,000, the operating deficit exceeds $500,000.

What is Shelby Farms worth if parts of it were sold or leased for commercial development? A conservative estimate is at least $200 million.

Waymon "Jackie" Welch of Welch Realty, a leading suburban developer, has over the past decade sold several tracts adjoining the park to businesses and restaurants. Based on sales he made in the last four years, Welch said land along Germantown Parkway is worth at least $500,000 an acre, which is what he got this year for a site for a Chuck E. Cheese's near Dexter Road. The abandoned soccer fields and nearby property south of Walnut Grove on the west side of the park could be worth $200,000 an acre. And hundreds of other acres are worth, conservatively, $60,000 to $100,000 per acre.

"It is, without question, a premier site that would attract national attention," Welch said. Alternately, the county could keep the land itself and lease it.

"This could generate millions and millions of dollars a year in ground leases and taxes," he said. "In three years, you'd have $2 million to $3 million a month plus taxes coming in to the county."

Welch added that he has no expectation that this will happen in light of political realities, despite the county's mounting $1.3 billion debt.

Park Or Park Place?

Shelby Farms defies slogans and clichés. Two popular bumper stickers, "Don't Split Shelby Farms" and "Shelby Farms: Keep It Green," ignore the fact that the park is already split and interior roads and parking lots keep people from driving off-road to get to their favorite spots. Often described as "an urban jewel," even its ardent backers, including Terry, admit that it is lightly used and that many Memphians are oblivious to it.

If part of the park's new mission is to contribute to a healthier community by providing a place to hike, bike, skate, and go horseback riding, does the park need new management and private funding to provide activities already available?

Ranger Rick Richardson is at Shelby Farms at least five days a week, both as an employee and as a volunteer. As a volunteer, Richardson picks up trash and does maintenance and repairs in addition to his shift on the mounted patrol.

Richardson has heard his share of skepticism:

"If you have to give $250,000 to be on the conservancy board and have a say as to what happens there, is the general public going to be able to have any input? It'll be run by wealthy people. I hear concerns from visitors. They say, 'Why change the name to Shelby Park? They should change the name to Shelby Country Club. That's what it's going to be.'"

Satterfield, the interim superintendent of the park since last year, points to the county's mounting debt. In the grand scheme of things, the park is competing in a race for funds alongside county schools, roads, and jails. And it's losing.

In fact, the parts of the park that are most often utilized by the public were not funded by Shelby County in the first place. Satterfield said the park's greatest assets are its gathering places: the Patriot Lake and Chickasaw trails.

"Those trails were funded with grant funds," said Satterfield.

The grants were from a federal program for highway, trail, and road improvements. The county mayor's office was involved in securing the funds, but the trails were not paid for with county money. Likewise, bathrooms and playground areas have been donated by private businesses.

Satterfield doesn't know what will happen to county employees at the park, but he believes that the conservancy is probably the only way to utilize the park to its fullest potential.

"Part of the beauty, in my mind, of the park is that there's nothing there," he said. "In the fields, there aren't any obstructions. You don't see any buildings. The beauty is in the pastoral nature. I hope they can retain that. It's nice to be able to come across the Wolf River and boom! Wide open spaces."

Central Park -- Size: 843 acres. Population served: 20 million. Conservancy lease: 8 years, 60-member board. Private funds: $270 million. History: Frederick Law Olmsted's masterpiece.

Shelby Park -- Size: 4,450 acres. Population served: 1 million. Conservancy lease: 100 years, 11-member board. Private funds: $20 million. History: Shelby County Penal Farm in 1929.

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