Governments are a bit like rhinos. They're big and slow, but once they get up a head of steam, they're powerful and hard to stop. Our cover story this week is about some folks who stopped a rhino.
Last November, the Mid-South Fair board, which manages Libertyland, abruptly announced that the venerable park had been losing money year after year and would be closed. The equipment and rides would be auctioned off. End of story. Thanks for the memories.
Denise Parkinson and a few other diehards formed a group called Save Libertyland. Why, they wondered, shouldn't the citizens of Memphis have a voice in any decision to kill off a community-owned nonprofit organization? The fair board stonewalled them. So did city officials. Mayor Herenton wasn't interested. Parkinson was dismissed as a nostalgic "stay at home mom" by Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck in an editorial about Save Libertyland's efforts. (I should have warned Peck; Denise used to work as a Flyer copy editor and she's a force of nature, not to be underestimated.) Parkinson's ragtag guerrilla force kept making noise -- and phone calls to amusement-park developers, politicians, fair board members, city officials, and, yes, newspaper editors.
Then a funny thing happened: The "done deal" got derailed. With legal help from U of M law professor Steve Mulroy, it was discovered that the Mid-South Fair's lease on Libertyland had expired 10 years ago and the rides were probably city property, not the fair board's. It was also revealed that potential investors in Libertyland who had tried to contact city and fair board officials had been ignored. All of a sudden, saving Libertyland didn't seem so quixotic. The property auction was canceled.
The fight isn't over, not by a long shot. Libertyland, with its 500 summer jobs for Memphis youth and its 1909 carousel and 1912 Zippin' Pippin coaster, may never reopen. But two park operators who specialize in turning around failing theme parks are submitting proposals to the city. And if the rhino isn't dead, it's at least stalled in its tracks.
Bruce VanWyngarden, Editor