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VOL. 7 | NO. 27 | Saturday, June 28, 2014

Park Progress

Shelby Farms begins most ambitious phase of improvements

By Andy Meek

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Shelby Farms Park has always seemed, in a way, like Memphis’ 4,500-acre backyard.

Venture to the park on any given day, and what’s liable to greet you is a cross section of Memphis that presents itself amid the park’s rolling hills, pastures, trails and lakes.

About 1 million people live within a 20-minute drive of the park, and the diversity of that population can be seen in the form of people and families of all ages, races and neighborhoods enjoying free access to a park that’s five times bigger than Central Park in New York City.

Those people represent a long, diverse list of Shelby Farms’ users, and especially on a sunny day, everyone from joggers to dog-walkers, children scampering around the playground and families huddled around picnic tables make the social and civic value of Shelby Farms self-evident.

Meanwhile, the conservancy that’s operated and managed Shelby Farms since 2007 has major plans in store for the park that have taken a big leap forward lately.

There’s a major expansion in the works, for example, as well as the benefit of a newly released economic impact study commissioned by the conservancy and done by Younger Associates that brings the value of the park into clear focus.

The study gives the park a current economic impact of almost $7 million. And not only does Shelby Farms, according to the report, contribute that seven-figure sum each year to the local economy, an expansion underway at the park also is going to boost that figure substantially, according to the research.

The conservancy in recent days broke ground on an ambitious ecological restoration and expansion of Patriot Lake for the Park’s Heart of the Park project. It’s an outgrowth of a master plan for Shelby Farms that was finished in 2008.

That plan includes better vehicle access, new visitor amenities and an expansion of Patriot Lake, as well as the restoration of a forest on the park’s southern and eastern border. The Heart of the Park project is part of the first phase of the master plan, and the park’s economic impact study forecasts that the Heart of the Park will have a one-time impact of almost $141 million, as well as more than doubling the park’s current impact to almost $14 million each year.

“It’s important for our own understanding and to be able to communicate the value of the investment we’re making in the park,” said Laura Adams, executive director of the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, about the study. “There are a lot of things we know already about the park. It has great social value. People of all ages, demographics and ways of life can come together for free and as equals at the park, and social factors are really the glue that binds communities together.

“We also know that great cities need great parks, and that cities that take care of their parks tend to do better. And what we’re finding more and more is that places in the public realm are measuring their economic impact, in an attempt to understand and quantify their significance to the economy.”

In addition to the $6 million the park contributes to the local economy each year, according to the impact study, the conservancy argues the park also carries even more in the way of economic benefits. For example, $31 million is the real estate value believed to have been added to properties within 500 feet of the Shelby Farms Greenline since 2010, suggesting the park has a kind of halo effect on property values.

What’s more, $2.8 million has been saved on health bills among those using the park for exercise, according to the conservancy’s research.

The park’s master plan was designed by James Corner Field Operations, a renowned design firm responsible for the High Line in New York City and Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London. The plan’s centerpieces include ecological improvements as well as the Heart of the Park project.

New facilities coming to the park were designed by Marlon Blackwell Associates and will meet LEED standards, the conservancy says.

Expected to take about two years to complete, the Heart of the Park includes features like a new buffalo range, a new and more energy efficient visitor center, more lakeside pavilions, a farm-to-table restaurant, a boat rental kiosk and new trails, among other things.

As part of everything going on at the park, Patriot Lake also is getting some attention.

Patriot Lake’s current alignment of 52 acres will be growing to 85 acres. The lake’s expansion is a critical element of the master plan and will, upon completion, be positioned as a centerpiece of the park, with new areas for park users to stroll, jog, cycle, in-line skate, picnic, walk dogs and more.

Phase One of the master plan is estimated to cost $70 million and includes everything from the Heart of the Park to the already completed Greenline, the Woodland Discovery Playground, the Wolf River Pedestrian Bridge and gateway and way-finding signs. The conservancy also is close to raising the full budget for that first phase of the master plan.

To date, the conservancy has raised more than $66 million, or 94 percent of the goal, from individuals, corporations and foundations, along with a pledge of $5 million from the state of Tennessee.

In short, the Heart of the Park is intended to completely reshape the heart of Shelby Farms, creating a distinct hub and departure point for all manner of elements and activities within the park.

Among other changes coming to the park, meanwhile, the conservancy last month also began installing solar-powered “eco-counters” on trails and access points around Shelby Farms.

With that installation, data will be collected using the counters’ technology to help with the park’s planning and management, a project that’s been made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis and with matching support from the Hyde Family Foundations.

The counters will track, for example, how and when visitors access the park and Greenline, and not only can distinguish between bicyclists and pedestrians but can measure usage time and type. The conservancy will crunch those numbers to get a handle on usage patterns at the park and to begin thinking more analytically about long-term trends so that improvements can be planned and resources better allocated.

As with the impact study, the counters also serve a similar purpose: the data they generate can help provide reliable information to visitors and stakeholders and give a better read on growth at the park from one year to the next.

Bob Fockler, president of the Community Foundation, explains that the tracking technology will be a major boon for the park as its works to make more “informed operational and programming decisions to best serve its visitors.”

Similarly, in light of all the investment underway at Shelby Farms, city of Memphis bicycle and pedestrian coordinator Kyle Wagenshutz agreed that understanding how an investment is being used is one of the most important pieces of information an organization or government can have.

Which touches on the current state of things at the park, as well as the even more green and expansive future to which the park is headed. The conservancy is leading the charge to give people more to do at the park and more reasons to visit – and at the same time is working to count those people and measure those dollars it’s spending, creating a virtuous cycle that will help the conservancy raise more money and bring more attention and resources to the park.

“These are things that in the past have seemed hard to measure, but it’s important that we do,” Adams said. “People can live anywhere in the world, and they remember the things like Shelby Farms that tie them to Memphis.”

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