In light of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners unanimous vote for the master plan for Shelby Farms Park, it seems an appropriate time to reprise a post from March 27, 2007, because Monday’s vote was an exercise in déjà vu:
There is the political axiom that when the right people and the right timing align, they can change the world.
This week, they did in fact change the world of Shelby Farms Park.
The right people were Laura Adams, AC Wharton and Mike Carpenter.
The right timing was ushered in when the radically revamped Shelby County Board of Commissioners was sworn in, removing Walter Bailey and Julian Bolton from office and removing their predictable “fight to the death” attitudes toward any suggestion that operations of the park should be turned over to a private, nonprofit organization.
And yet, even with this alignment, it’s hard to grasp how much has been accomplished in a place where seven months is considered the governmental equivalent of moving at light speed.
On Monday, commissioners voted unanimously to give Shelby County Mayor Wharton the power to enter into an agreement with a nonprofit group to manage the park and implement a master plan that turns the promise of the 4,500 acres into the reality of a world-class park.
Combined with the commissioners’ previous approval of a 50-year conservation easement and the Mayor Wharton’s appointment of a special committee to hire the firm to develop a master plan for the 4,500 acres, county government has adopted a green ethos unimaginable just a year ago.
Success has many parents, so there will be plenty of people lining up to take a bow, but before history is rewritten, Mrs. Adams, Mayor Wharton and Commissioner Carpenter deserve special footnotes. Without any of the three, it’s hard to imagine that Shelby Farms Park would be on the cusp of a new era.
Mrs. Adams’ involvement began at the moment of Shelby Farms Park’s greatest setback, the failed attempt to create a conservancy in 2001 by Memphis business leader Ron Terry. Despite the presence of $20 million as an inducement and unprecedented community interest in realizing the full potential of the park, commissioners voted down the proposal after Commissioner Bailey led a hysterical political stampede that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Mr. Terry – who single-handedly elevated Shelby Farms Park to the top of the civic agenda – recommended Mrs. Adams as a member of his proposed conservancy, giving birth to a renewed passion for the park that led her to accept the presidency of Friends of Shelby Farms in 2002.
Her leadership brought dramatic changes to the group – moving it from a marginalized anti-everything organization to one known for its political savvy and its willingness to find common ground where long-standing controversies could be resolved and support for the park could be expanded. Through an unrelenting attention to details and the seeming ability to be everywhere at the same time, she brought new focus to the agenda of Friends of Shelby County and a new respect for its work.
Along the way, she opened up lines of communications with government that had all but disappeared over the previous decade as Friends leaders seemingly assailed county officials for every problem of the park and questioned their integrity and their stewardship.
Within a couple of years under Mrs. Adams’ leadership, Friends of Shelby Farms Park had morphed from a disorganized grassroots group into the disciplined Shelby Farms Park Alliance and its blue-ribbon board.
Conversations between Mrs. Adams and Mayor Wharton eventually created the mutual respect that produced momentum for resurrecting Mr. Terry’s general concept for dramatically upgrading the park and empowering the private management to manage it.
(While The Commercial Appeal headline writer erroneously referred to the change as “privatizing” Shelby Farms, it’s a careless use of the term, because it is more akin to the Memphis Zoological Society’s role at the Memphis Zoo than Servicemaster’s management of the county’s senior citizens centers. Of course, the most obvious and notable difference is that the organization managing the zoo and the one that will manage Shelby Farms Park isn’t out to make a profit for a private business.)
Along the way, Mrs. Adams provided Mayor Wharton with information about the context sensitive design process, and he appointed a broad-based committee to use the process to end the 25-year-old controversy about the planned highway through Shelby Farms Park. In the end, the committee succeeded in reaching a breakthrough agreement for a new design and alignment for the highway, and it was not lost on the mayor that Mrs. Adams was instrumental to reaching the consensus that accrued to his political benefit.
Expanding The Vision
Encouraged by the prospects of achieving a vision that could turn Shelby Farms Park from a popular regional park to a park with national importance, not to mention the chance to cut county funding by moving responsibility for park operations to a nonprofit organization, Mayor Wharton took up the cause of the master plan and appointed a committee to write an RFP and select the national planner to develop a park master plan.
But, in the end, Mrs. Adams and Mayor Wharton needed a champion on the board of commissioners who could be an effective advocate for the park and act as floor leader for the resolutions for a conservation easement and private management. Commissioner Carpenter, whose inexperience in public office and youth were perceived as barriers to his ability to be an impact player, proved all predictions about his impact wrong.
He not only served as a good salesman, but remarkably, he managed a 12-0 vote on Monday, positioning himself as an emerging leader on the body. While he’s been widely criticized by Republican Party members for voting with the Democratic majority in support of a second Juvenile Court judge, it’s beginning to look like a sage maneuver that’s positioned him to deliver up the votes to pass resolutions popular to his East Memphis base, including cuts in government budgets for non-essential services like parks and shifting operational responsibility to non-public management.
All in all, it’s a momentous time for Shelby Farms Park. No, those of us who support a plan to develop it into the eastern anchor for a Greening Greater Memphis network didn’t get everything we wanted. Despite passage of the new governance model by the board of commissioners, it seems like Agricenter International is being rewarded despite its consistent arrogance in deliberations about the future of the 4,500 acres and for treating the 1,000 acres under its control as a private preserve for which the public deserves no accounting.
That’s why it’s hard to understand why Agricenter has two members on the board. Under the resolution approved Monday, the Agricenter International board – a nonprofit private organization – will remain in place as well as the public Agricenter Commission that’s supposed to be providing oversight. Why give Agricenter a place at the table when it consistently refuses to cooperate and coordinate with park operations and whose only consistent talent is at disrupting any meaningful discussion about the best future for the entire park footprint?
It’s almost as perplexing as to why the commissioners required that someone from the Shelby County Conservation Board must be on the new park management board, since it’s an increasingly irrelevant group.
But, this isn’t the point to nit pick the details. The vote this week was a long time coming, and it proves again that all good things are worth waiting for.