[City Beat] Agricenter Plays Hardball 

Secrecy helps county's land-rich Agricenter International lay low in tough times.

While public schools, hospitals, and law-enforcement agencies are fighting for jobs and services in the face of budget cuts from Shelby County, one prominent piece of county government has managed to insulate itself from both the budget ax and public scrutiny.

Agricenter International is the manager and landlord of 1,000 acres of Shelby Farms, which includes the pyramid-shaped Agricenter headquarters and exhibit hall, 400 acres of crop land, a trailer park, a catfish pond, and several commercial, government, and nonprofit enterprises. It calls this "a Versailles of American agricultural technology for all the world to see and share."

Formed in 1982, the Agricenter owes its existence to $4.5 million in state funds and $2 million in county funds, plus 1,000 acres south of Walnut Grove Road and west of Germantown Parkway. It is part of 4,500-acre Shelby Farms, often misdescribed as a park but actually a mixture of parks, farms, natural areas, arena and livestock pens, and a prison. The arena, which is adjacent to the Agricenter headquarters, is scheduled to close in November, and its future is uncertain. The park manager has been told to find $250,000 in added revenue to offset a budget cut.

With an estimated $1.5 billion in debt, Shelby County is cash-poor, as public-school supporters were reminded at Monday's Shelby County Commission meeting. But it is land-rich, thanks to Shelby Farms, believed to be the largest urban "park" in America and located in the heart of the county.

Two radically different proposals have been made for turning land into cash. Developers say the county could make as much as $5 million a year by leasing a portion of land along Germantown Parkway occupied by Shelby Show Place Arena and Agricenter International to hotels and retailers. Conservationists have proposed turning Shelby Farms over to a conservancy, which would prop it up with a $20 million endowment and take over the debt and maintenance.

Neither proposal has gotten anywhere with Mayor A C Wharton or the commission, although the pending closing of the Shelby Show Place Arena may force the issue. In an effort to get a clearer picture of the complexities and commercial possibilities of Shelby Farms during the budget process, the Flyer asked to see the leases of Agricenter International and its tenants. Its board, the Shelby County Agricenter Commission, is appointed by the county mayor. The chairman since the board's inception has been Hamilton Smythe III. The Agricenter president is John Charles Wilson, a cotton farmer from Arlington, Tennessee, who has held that office since 2001.

Agricenter International doesn't want the public to know how it does business. For more than a month, Wilson and his board refused requests from the Flyer to see or copy the leases. Last week Wilson again declined to release the documents, even after being told by Shelby County Attorney Brian Kuhn, acting on orders of Mayor A C Wharton, that they are public information.

"These are private documents," Wilson told me when I visited his office last Friday. "I'm not going to give them to you."

This week, on orders of Shelby County chief administrative officer John Fowlkes, Wilson relented. Hours before our deadline, he personally delivered 17 leases totaling 580 pages to the county public affairs office. The stonewalling prevented public scrutiny of one of Shelby County's most valuable assets -- and a potential money-maker -- at a time when Wharton, Sheriff Mark Luttrell, Shelby County commissioners, and school board members are talking about laying off teachers and deputies and eliminating sports and music programs.

No single source of revenue, of course, is going to get Shelby County out of its financial hole. But every little bit helps. Steve Satterfield, the manager of the park part of Shelby Farms, is unsure how he will come up with an additional $250,000 a year.

"We may have to try some more concerts and one-day events," he said. But some of those have lost money in the past. Satterfield said he has proposed a $2-per-car entry fee similar to the fee charged by state parks, but added, "I'm not getting much support for that."

The biggest expense is grounds maintenance, which costs about $180,000 a year, even if farmers are allowed to cut some of the grass in the open fields for hay. At 3,300 acres, the park part of Shelby Farms is four times the size of Central Park in New York City.

While they were telling Satterfield to come up with $250,000, commissioners agreed to forgive a $250,000 loan to Agricenter International in return for the organization's agreeing to pay for the future maintenance of its buildings and air conditioners. No commissioner or member of the county administration, however, has asked for a review of the county's relationship with Agricenter International or put the squeeze on its tenants. The largest of them, Ducks Unlimited, a wetlands conservation organization with revenues of $134 million a year, has a 20-year, $1-a-year lease that expires in 2011.

Since it was conceived in 1979 by Memphis agribusinessman Ned Cook and others, Agricenter International has strayed from its vision as a "Versailles" of agricultural research and exhibitions of new technology that would be visited by, according to Agricenter estimates, "more than a half-million agricultural producers during the first year of operation." An Agricenter, it was noted, "had never been built in the United States or anywhere else." Nor has one been built since.

The county has continued to pour money into Agricenter International and Shelby Show Place Arena, citing their economic impact. But hard times and competition have taken a toll. The arena is scheduled to close in November and it is uncertain if it will continue to be an equestrian facility, said Shelby County Public Works Director Ted Fox. The Butcher Shop Steakhouse, which is only open in the evening, pays a portion of its income to the county general fund. The arena and restaurant are located at the southwest corner of Walnut Grove Road and Germantown Parkway, one of the busiest intersections in the county.

Agricenter International's agribusiness tenants such as Case Corporation, Helena Chemical, and Stoneville seed company have been joined by more mundane enterprises whose connection to agricultural research is tenuous, at best. The current tenant roster includes, among others:

· Catch-'em Lake, a catfish pond where visitors pay $2 to fish and $1.49 per pound for whatever they catch and keep.

· Mulch Works, a Cordova company that turns tree debris into acres of mulch piled on its site for sale to homes and businesses. The rent is $12,000 per year for two years.

· Advantage Stone and Hardscapes, which sells those items to the public. The rent is free the first year because the tenant is cleaning up the facility and increases to $9,000 a year in the third year.

· A trailer and RV park with 296 sites and hook-ups.

· Cingular Wireless, which has a five-year lease for $21,000 a year.

· WHBQ Television, a Fox Television affiliate, which leases space for its weather equipment in return for television commercials.

· Tower Ventures, which has a 20-year lease for a cell tower at a base rate of $12,000 a year. Its parent company, Global Signal, had $169 million in revenue in 2003.

In addition, Agricenter International offers pastoral activities, including garden plots for public use, a farmers' market, and a greenhouse and garden store. There will be a computer show at the exhibit hall this weekend and a home and garden expo in August. In all, Agricenter International's annual revenue from rent, programs, and farm operations was $1.8 million in 2003, according to its most recent tax form. Wilson draws a salary of $99,000. Smythe is unpaid.

Agricenter International's showcase tenant is the national headquarters of Ducks Unlimited, which hosts the popular Great Outdoors Festival every year, attracting dozens of sponsors and charging visitors and exhibitors a fee for some noisy, hands-on, outdoor fun. Government, however, has been reluctant to ask for a bigger cut of the deal or exploit the commercial possibilities of its very own prime slice of the great outdoors for its own benefit. Fox said the county only gets a share of the parking revenue from the festival.

Real estate experts say Agricenter's 1,000 acres is potentially some of the most valuable land in Shelby County. Commercial real estate broker Waymon "Jackie" Welch Jr. of Welch Realty says developed frontage on Germantown Parkway is worth $400,000 to $800,000 an acre. He based his estimate on nearby properties on Germantown Parkway that he has sold or leased in the last 10 years. If the county kept title to the land and made 50-year leases with companies such as hunting and fishing stores, medical offices, boat motor dealers, or hotels, Welch estimates the income would be around $5 million a year.

"They could have millions of dollars for first-class park amenities," he said, envisioning a Cabela's, Bass Pro Shop, or other hunting-and-fishing superstore making use of the nearby ponds and Wolf River.

Recent proposals by political candidates to sell or lease part of Shelby Farms have been dismissed as crackpot visions or a crass violation of "the park." A drive along the southern side of Walnut Grove Road through Agricenter International's property shows that "the park" already has commercial tenants. And it is a far cry from Versailles by anyone's standards.

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