Political miscalculations have put the fate of the proposed Shelby Park Conservancy in doubt.
The Shelby County Commission voted 6-4 Monday against turning Shelby Farms over to a privately funded conservancy, reversing its 9-2 approval of the concept in May.
"We're down but far from out," said Ron Terry, mastermind of the conservancy plan. "Normally, you should be able to count votes before you have a vote taken, but in this case, some of the votes were pretty well obscured."
An impassioned last-gasp appeal from Shelby County mayor Jim Rout on behalf of the conservancy failed.
"This is not a political football," Rout said. "I urge you to think about this. Do not defeat this item. Defer it, but don't kill it today."
A majority of the commissioners, however, was not moved by the lame-duck mayor, although retiring commissioner Buck Wellford, a conservancy supporter, switched his vote to the majority to keep his options open.
In some ways, Shelby Farms has become a political football. Joe Cooper, the Democratic candidate for Wellford's seat, attended the meeting and spoke in favor of allowing commercial development in part of the 4,450-acre park. His Republican opponent, Bruce Thompson, has ridiculed that position. On Monday, Cooper scaled down his proposal from 2,000 or more acres to a modest 25 to 30 acres of development suggested by Commissioner Michael Hooks.
Cooper sat next to developer Jackie Welch, who is both a political kingpin and a supporter of developing some of Shelby Farms. But Welch downplayed his involvement and said he was at the meeting only because his daughter was being appointed to the Land Use Control Board and he had a zoning case before the commission.
"I'm not involved, and I'm not going to get crosswise with Rout or anyone else," Welch said. "My opinion is that you could take 30 to 40 acres of frontage along Germantown Road and lease it and produce some income. [The county] could have had Wal-Mart there."
Welch said Hooks called him to verify some property values along Germantown Parkway because Welch sold some adjoining land to Storage U.S.A. Welch has supported Hooks politically and raised money for his campaigns in the past.
But the political football analysis shortchanges some philosophical objections made previously by some opponents of the proposed conservancy. Commissioner Walter Bailey in particular has questioned the wisdom of turning over a huge public asset to a private board, even one willing to invest $20 million in park improvements and maintenance. He has noted that proponents brought the proposal to the commission scarcely a month ago as pretty much of a done deal and urged commission ratification by July 1st.
"The Shelby County government is not for sale," Bailey said. "If you got money, you got control. I will not vote for this project."
Marilyn Loeffel, who also voted against the conservancy, is a member of a conservative faction of the Republican Party that has some problems with Rout, but her objections also were grounded on principles. She thinks the elected commission is giving away too much power to appointed authorities.
Even though he is in the thick of the political campaign for his commission seat and has bad blood with Welch, Wellford was willing to grant opponents of the conservancy some good-faith motives. "I think a combination of issues is going on," he said. "You've got some people who legitimately think this is an elitist project, and they are sort of reacting in a populist, anti-elitist attitude. I think Walter personifies that. Second, I have no doubt there are developers looking to carve out a substantial part of the park. Third, some Democrats are trying to give some credibility to Joe Cooper."
Wellford said any opposition to the conservancy, even in the form of a request for a study of land values, is tantamount to killing it.
"Momentum is everything in politics," he said. "Ron Terry may not have the energy or desire to put it back together in six months or a year from now, but the new mayor could make it a priority."
A day after the meeting, Terry sounded like he still has plenty of fight left in him.
"You still have the same question of whether we can give additional information to the commission that would be persuasive enough to make them reconsider their action and whether we can continue with the progress in the state legislative delegation concerning the Agricenter bill over there," he said.
That bill would dissolve the Agricenter in favor of the conservancy.