Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Looking Indispensable

You can hire publicists to do it, or you can get the daily newspaper to do it for you.

Posted By on Wed, May 10, 2006 at 4:00 AM

One week after publishing its excellent series of reports on voter registration, The Commercial Appeal followed up with a package in Sunday's newspaper on Agricenter International that was, let's just say, not as good.

The two stories, which took up the entire front page of the business section, are only worth noting because of the timing. It's budget-setting season, when city and county elected officials sharpen their knives and government agencies run for cover or hire publicists and consultants to make them look indispensable. Or, if you're Agricenter, you get the daily newspaper to do that for you.

Agricenter International controls 1,000 acres of the 4,000-acre Shelby Farms and leases land to a variety of commercial ventures, including a trailer park, cell tower, and Ducks Unlimited. As the CA stories said, it also provides inner-city children a chance to experience life on a working farm, or something like that. And it has an economic impact -- whatever that is -- of more than $500 million a year! A veritable FedEx in a farm.

What the story didn't say was that the study was paid for by Agricenter International. The CA was apparently so overwhelmed by the big number that it could only note that the sum includes $250,000 spent at East Memphis hotels -- leaving $500 million plus change in the "other" category.

It is neither fair nor reasonable to take Shelby Farms and Agricenter International off the table during budget discussions while putting the heat on smaller fry. Mayor Willie Herenton has said several times that he is looking to close schools, parks, and fire stations and sell "nonperforming assets" to balance the budget. He has called out "irresponsible" city employee union leaders. The unions are big enough to fight back, but there are not many neighborhood parks, schools, or fire stations that can mount a tear-jerking publicity campaign or pay for an economic impact study to save themselves.

Nor does it make any sense to focus so much attention and publicity on the Mid-South Fairgrounds, Libertyland, the carousel, and the Mid-South Fair and so little on Shelby Farms, which is several times larger and potentially more lucrative.

Over strong objections from Agricenter International president John Charles Wilson, the Flyer obtained the nonprofit organization's leases in 2004. Wilson yielded only after the county attorney and Shelby County mayor A C Wharton intervened, and then Wilson made sure we paid $148 in copying charges. Oddly enough, after seeing the leases, I was more convinced than ever that Agricenter International is on the right track. In a 4,000-acre park, it makes sense to lease some acreage. But the leases should be public and publicized -- and those are two different things. They should be competitively bid to get a market price. The proceeds should benefit the park and possibly provide a surplus for other projects.

As it stands now, Shelby County, through Agricenter International, leases land to Ducks Unlimited for $1 a year. Between this year and 2011, when the lease expires, the county will collect exactly five bucks for some of the choicest, best located land in Shelby County. Other tenants include a trailer park, a cell tower ($12,000 a year), and Cingular Wireless ($21,000 a year).

It's one thing for newspapers and interest groups to look at public documents and come to their own conclusions. But to ignore the documents and substitute puffery is negligence. Not many people know it, but Shelby Farms is within the Memphis city limits. Its operating structure and ownership go back to an era before suburban sprawl, when it was a prison farm, and both the city of Memphis and Shelby County had different forms of government than they do now. The Agricenter was invented in 1979 as a "Versailles" of modern agriculture. The insiders who run it know perfectly well it was not envisioned as a place where kids could catch a fish or pick a tomato.

The mission has changed, which is understandable. But the public deserves to see the books and know the whole story. Gentleman farmers and duck hunters shouldn't be held to a standard different from schools, libraries, and fire stations at budget time.

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