The most studied piece of real estate in the county is about to get it again.
But the committee appointed this week by the county commission to study the future of Shelby Farms is a much more diverse and political group than the one proposed by former mayor Jim Rout and businessman Ron Terry a little more than a year ago.
The Rout-Terry proposal, which was shot down by the commission, was built for consensus, speed, and fund-raising ability. It would have taken control of Shelby Farms out of public hands and turned it over to a nonprofit conservancy with a privately funded $20 million endowment. The new 21-member advisory committee has more elected officials, more administration input, more women, more blacks, more developer-friendly types, and more people, period, than its would-be predecessor.
One thing it doesn't have, for now at least, is private money, which was one of the big hooks in last year's proposal. But that could change. Walter Bailey, chairman of the commission and the key opponent of the Rout-Terry plan, says he personally favors a Central Park model for management of 4,500-acre Shelby Farms. The Central Park Conservancy has managed 843-acre Central Park since 1998 under a contract with New York City. The conservancy has raised nearly $300 million.
What rubbed Bailey the wrong way last year was what he saw as an end-run around the commission by the former administration and a hurry-up mandate to approve what was essentially a done deal for the next 50 years. The new committee, he says, will take its time and hold meetings and hearings for a year or more.
"We don't want people with preconceived ideas," he said.
Members from the political side include commissioners Michael Hooks, Julian Bolton, Marilyn Loeffel, Tom Moss, and Bruce Thompson as well as state Rep. Henri Brooks, the city and county chief administrative officers, and Public Works director Ted Fox. From the business side, there are, among others, Union Planters Bank executive Ken Plunk, attorneys Charlie Newman and Charles Carpenter, Steve Epple from Friends of Shelby Farms, former commissioner Bridget Chisholm, and Dawn Kinard. The chairman is Gene Pearson, director of the graduate program in city and regional planning at the University of Memphis.
Thompson was elected last year partly on a promise to oppose commercial development of Shelby Farms. Kinard is the daughter of suburban developer Jackie Welch, the most outspoken proponent of developing part of it.
"At the corner of Germantown Parkway and Walnut Grove there needs to be a hotel," Welch said this week.
He plans to offer to pay for a rendering of what the eastern edge of Shelby Farms would look like if the Shelby Showplace Arena, an existing restaurant, and the farmers market were replaced by a new grand entrance off Germantown Parkway, two or three hotel sites, a 50-acre lake, and other commercial sites leased by the county.
"The tighter the budget, the friendlier they're going to be to it," he said.
Bailey said the advisory committee was created with the blessing of Mayor A C Wharton, who is on record opposing the sale and, presumably, lease of public lands to raise money for government operations. The broad makeup of the committee and its lack of a financial benefactor and driving force such as Terry could ensure that Shelby Farms stays pretty much as it is for a while. The park has been under more or less continuous study since the '60s. The private conservancy is one of many aborted ideas. A plan for a major new road and intersection in the park that was several years in the making has also been scrapped by the new administration.
Quiet controversies underlie several of the park's bucolic and seemingly mind-your-own-business uses. On a summer morning the day after the commission meeting, four men were training their dogs in a pasture. When told about the new committee, one of the dog trainers, Lanier Fogg, perked up like a retriever watching a shot duck.What could possibly be controversial about dog training?
Well, trainers haul their dogs and gear in trucks, and the trucks go off the dirt roads and drive on paths through the pasture. So do horse trailers. To get to the paths they go through gates, which can be open or locked depending on park policy. If dog trainers and horsemen can drive off-road, what about fishermen? Or four-wheelers? Or anybody having a picnic or looking for some privacy? And how does that impact compare with the impact of the series of eight outdoor music concerts in the park this summer and their attendant stages, light poles, and set-up crews?
In short, Fogg was very interested to know how the new committee was going to relate to the park board chaired by Ron Terry and the park superintendent Steve Satterfield, whose predecessor was fired by the last county mayor.
The answer, right now, is that nobody knows.