It’s about as easy for us to imagine Shelby Farms Park without its herd of buffaloes as it is to imagine it without Laura Wolff Morris.

But sometime in the coming months, she will turn over her responsibilities as executive director to her successor after about 15 years of being singularly focused on turning the vision of America’s great 21st century park into a reality.

A few weeks ago, we toured the dramatic transformation that is under way at Shelby Farms Park and it is nothing short of breathtaking.  There will not only be nothing like it anywhere in the Memphis region, there will be nothing in the U.S. that will outshine it.

What makes the park even more remarkable is how improbable it is that it would ever come to pass.

An Improbable Victory

Just think, in 1960, Shelby County Government decided that the 4,500 acres that had been a model penal farm was surplus property, and for the next 14 years, county officially worked tirelessly to sell it or turn it over for development, most notably for a planned community for 40,000-65,000 people.  That said, it was not until 2006 that park lovers could rest easy because once and for all, the land had been protected for use as a park.

The public’s battles to protect parkland are two of the most overlooked chapters in local history, and yet, the victory of environmentalists over government and development interests are milestones for the nation’s park movement.  In the early 1970s, the fight to protect for public use what was then Shelby Farms Penal Farm land was taking place simultaneously with the battle to protect Overton Park.

The Overton Park controversy was taking place in federal court and the Shelby Farms Park controversy was playing out in the court of public opinion.  In both cases, they ended up with landmark decisions that put Memphis in the national eye for preservation of parkland, and as outstanding case studies in public activism.

More to the point, it’s impossible to look at either of these two parks today and not have a sense of gratitude for those often belittled activists who fought against the entrenched interests that argued that an interstate highway through the city’s historic park or a massive development on bucolic public land was “progress” and “economic growth.”

The Terry Vision

Today, it is the presence of parkland, outdoor assets, and green space that are proven drivers for economic development and talent retention and attraction rather than bigger and wider highways and sprawling developments.

The Shelby Farm Park story is about how remarkable people emerged at just the right moment to keep the dream alive and advance the cause.  One of those people was Mrs. Morris, and in her case, she appeared more than once – in a variety of roles – when the promise was in question and when it needed momentum.

In a way, her involvement was predestined.  There is no more well-known or determined supporter of the park than her father, Art Wolff, and as a girl, she had accompanied her father’s Scout troop to clear trails at the park.  While living in Tel Aviv and Washington, D.C., her father kept her up-to-date on park events, and several years after she moved back to Memphis, Ron Terry – former First Tennessee Bank CEO and visionary business leader – asked her to serve on the conservancy board he was proposing to manage and operate Shelby Farms Park.

It was a simple premise by one of the most influential CEOs in the modern history of Memphis.  Shelby County could not afford to invest any more money into the modest 333-acre Plough Park that it had created at Shelby Farms (county government was still unwilling to call it a park) and more to the point, it just did not have the capacity or the skills to deliver a park deserving of that overused adjective, world-class.

The Crusade Begins

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners was for Mr. Terry’s proposal before it was against it.  After initially approving the idea, it later voted it down in an argument about the terms of the conservancy’s lease.

At this point, Mrs. Morris’ love for the parkland turned into a crusade, putting her university degree in international politics to good use.  “It was already in my blood and Ron painted a picture that was very compelling of how Shelby Farms could become this incredible world-class park,” she said in a recent interview we requested.

Following the failure at the board of commissioners, she decided that what was lacking was broader support for the vision.  “I didn’t feel like the public understood it – what it could be and why it mattered,” she said.  “We needed more grassroots’ voices saying it was important.  We had to make sure it mattered to more people.”

To get this done, she joined the board of Friends of Shelby Farms and became its chair.  In that role, she led the rewriting of its mission, values, and goals, she led the development of a three-year strategic plan for the group, and she added user groups to the board, broadening support and defining Friends of Shelby Farms by what it was for  – a great American park – and not just by what it was against – highways through the park.

Changing The Conversation

Friends of Shelby Farms became well-known for its ubiquity in public hearings and discussions about the future of the land and its active, involved leadership resulted in increased influence.  The group hired environmental engineer Walter Kulash and Environmental Attorney Joe McCaleb to help them consider the way the design and alignment of the Kirby-Whitten highway through the park could be improved.

As a result of this work, Memphis and Shelby County, for the first time, convened a “context sensitive design” process to mitigate the negative impact of the road, to add and improve bike and pedestrian access, to reduce the number of lanes, and to adopt a boulevard design. And to build more advocates for the park, Friends of Shelby Farms Park held public forums, organized “volunteer clean-up days” at the park, produced a newsletter and website, participated in national park seminars, and produced the first “You Gotta Have Park Festival.”

Momentum was building, and a year after taking office as county mayor, A C Wharton appointed a 21-member task force whose purpose was to consider the future of the park.  In truth, his intent was for the task force to resurrect the Terry Plan.

With University of Memphis planning professor Gene Pearson at the helm, the task force meticulously collected information and evaluated options.  It recommended strongly that Shelby County Government should enter into a management agreement with a conservancy for operations of Shelby Farms and to charge the conservancy with the development of a master plan.

Thinking Big

At the same time, Mrs. Morris co-authored what became the Bible for what the park could be and the impact it could make: The Case for Shelby Farms Park: America’s Great 21st Century Park.  (Full disclosure: I was co-author.)  “What we really needed was to articulate a big, hairy, audacious vision, an aspirational vision,” she said.  “This was a turning point.  We brought in Peter Harnik (head of Center for City Park Excellence at Trust for Public Land) and he drove around the park before public lectures.  He said this (Shelby Farms Park) was the most exciting idea in parks today.”

The  38 pages of “The Case for Shelby Farms Park” included the history of the land, its geography, geology, and hydrology, park uses, present uses, zoning, governance, wildlife and vegetation, park benefits, and its impact on property values, health, youth development, economic development, air and water quality, biodiversity, community-building, crime previously and spiritual reflection.  It also looked into the lack of staff, funding, marketing, and vision.

“The overriding question for us now is not what kind of park we want, but what kind of community we seek,” the report said.  “It is not what we wish to do on the parkland, but what we want the land to do for our community.  It is not about making decisions about what we want, but what Shelby Countians 100 years from now would wish we had done.  It is in the name of these future generations for whom we are stewards that we create a great Shelby Farms Park.  In this real way, the park becomes the bridge that connections our present aspirations to our future realities.”

With the push from the case study and the task force, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners again considered a management agreement, and this time, in December, 2006, it approved a conservation easement that once and for all protected the land for a park.

Aiming High  

If there was any doubt that there was public interest in this issue, it was answered emphatically in April, 2007, when a SRO crowd showed up for the launch of the Greening Greater Memphis movement at Memphis Botanic Garden.  Organizers had expected several hundred people to show up, but the outpouring to sign a manifesto demanding greater public attention of parks, greenways, blueways, bike lanes, and more caught everyone by surprise.  The manifesto called for a necklace of green assets to have its hub at Shelby Farms Park.

The unexpected turnout and the passion of the participants at the Greening Greater Memphis event indicated the untapped and pent-up energy behind environmental issues and a green ethos for Memphis and Shelby County. Politicians, philanthropies, and businesses took notice, and in August of the same year, Shelby County Board of Commissioners turned over management of Shelby Farms Park to its Conservancy.

The first major hurdle in the journey to Shelby Farms Park had been cleared, but a big one loomed: developing a vision and a plan for a grand park that would elevate Memphis’ self-image through its ambition to be the best and to shake off the “it’s good enough for Memphis” attitude.

It was in connecting aspirations to realities that motivated Friends of Shelby Farms Park to do something few organizations have the courage to do – they ceased to exist.  They first evolved into the Shelby Farms Park Alliance which supported the Terry concepts and then morphed into Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, realizing Mrs. Morris’ ambition for the grassroots group to become a major player in charting the future of the park.   The stature of the Conservancy board was reflected in the leadership of philanthropist Barbara Hyde and people representing a cross-section of Shelby County.

Putting The Public First

“The easement allowed us to think big,” said Mrs. Morris, who has served as assistant executive director and executive director.  “It made it possible to raise money because it was insurance that the park would in fact take place.  It prevented the bad while allowing the good to happen.  It required that when the master plan was completed, the easement would reflect it.”

The prelude to the master planning involved Alex Garvin, noted urban planner, educator, and author, who guided a process to develop the Request for Proposals that would be sent to the country’s leading park planners and landscape architects.

The events also cemented the Conservancy’s commitment to public input and public involvement that have come to characterize all of its planning and work.  Mrs. Morris credits Jen Andrews, the first person she hired at the Conservancy and now director of development and communications, for executing on the promise that the public would have a voice in the park’s future.

“There were two phases of public input,” she said.  “One was before the finalists for the master planning put pen to paper.  It was to ask, ‘what do you like about the park.’  The second was when the finalists were paid a stipend to come to the park, meet with user groups, and understand what was there.  Then we put their (design) displays in three places for a month and volunteers were there to take answers.  It was the largest public input campaign launched at the time by a nonprofit.  It reached communities not yet using the park.  People wanted ‘big water.’”

Making A Great Park

After unprecedented public input – online as well as in person – James Corner Field Operations, designers of the universally celebrated (and copied) High Line in New York City, was chosen in 2008, and the Conservancy launched its $70 million fundraising for what was called the “Heart of the Park.”

While raising the money for the “Heart of the Park,” the Conservancy opened in 2010 the $7 million, 6.5 mile Shelby Farms Park Greenline and the $2 million Wolf River Pedestrian Bridge, connecting the Greenline to the Lucius E. Burch Natural Area and to neighborhoods south and west of the park.  In 2011, the Conservancy opened the award-winning $3.5 million Woodland Discovery Playground, which incorporated adventure, discovery, health, nature, and fun.

The Heart of the Park phase includes an enlarged and more ecologically sound 80-acre Patriot Lake, a new visitors center with context sensitive architecture, an events terrace for festivals and events, a retreat center, a restaurant operated by Kimbal Musk, new boat rental, lake side pavilions, and much more.  Since the Conservancy took over management of the park, the budget has increased from $575,000 to $2.7 million and once the “Heart of the Park’ project opens, it will climb to $4.5 million a year.  Meanwhile, what was once essentially a humble 333-acre park is now grown to its full 3,200 acres.  From a handful of activities, there are now dozens, directed by a staff of passionate professionals who demand the best for the park in response to the public input they are constantly seeking.

There have been many twists and turns along the road from the idea of a great park to delivering one to the people of Memphis and Shelby County.  In telling the story, Mrs. Morris lists dozens of people whose contributions propelled the idea and made it possible for the Conservancy to deliver on its mission to develop a great park that defines a great city

Mrs. Morris often says that “great parks are made,” but the theme of the Shelby Farms Park story is that “great parks are made by great leaders.”


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