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VOL. 122 | NO. 140 | Friday, July 27, 2007

New Group Takes Charge of Shelby Farms

Shelby Farms Conservancy looks to 'take park to next level'

By Eric Smith

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WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM: Bison rest in the grass of Shelby Farms, the 4,500-acre park now run by the newly formed Shelby Farms Conservancy. -- Photo By Eric Smith

It's Tuesday evening at Shelby Farms as runners, bikers and skaters traverse the park's myriad trails, kayakers paddle through the waters of Patriot Lake and families toss bread crumbs to geese.

In the distance, drivers stop to snap pictures of the bison herd's newest members - three babies born just weeks ago.

This is the typical scene for Shelby County's crown jewel, the 4,500-acre park that draws a million visits per year.

And thanks to a recent move by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr., the park should be preserved - and enhanced - for a multitude of future generations to enjoy.

Elevating to the next level

Last week Wharton signed an agreement handing management of Shelby Farms to a newly formed nonprofit group, Shelby Farms Conservancy. Calvin Anderson will serve as chairman of the conservancy's 34-member board of directors, and a national search for an executive director will begin immediately.

The conservancy, which already has filed for its 501(c)3 nonprofit status, replaces the Shelby Farms Park Alliance and will oversee all aspects of park management - from administration to conservation - for 2,900 acres of Shelby Farms, excluding Agricenter International and the area at Mullins Station and Farm roads that includes county offices.

Wharton said he believes the move is good for Shelby Farms and for those who visit.

"The management agreement with the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy establishes the type of public sector and community partnership that will facilitate the long-term investment necessary for the sustainable enhancement of Shelby Farms Park," he said.

Laura Adams, executive director of the alliance, said the park staff members that choose to stay will become conservancy employees, and the organization will begin hiring additional staff as needed, such as development and marketing directors. Adams' exact role at the conservancy has yet to be defined.

She echoed Wharton's sentiments about the establishment of the conservancy bringing sustainability to Shelby Farms.

SPLISH SPLASH: Kayakers paddle Patriot Lake in Shelby Farms earlier this week. -- Photo By Eric Smith

"What the conservancy allows us to do is grow the park in a really orderly fashion by engaging the community, by engaging the talent for a comprehensive planning process for the park, by raising money for park improvements, park programming," she said. "Some of those things we've been doing, but the creation of the conservancy really takes it to the next level."

Accidental park with a plan

The next level begins with the creation of a master plan for the park, something that hasn't existed before, Adams noted, and will be modeled after similar plans for renowned urban parks such as Central Park in New York City.

"Shelby Farms has been - until, really, the development of a conservation easement and the establishment of the conservancy - an accidental park," Adams said. "It was a penal farm. Then the land became surplus. There were multiple proposals over the years to do certain things at the park, like planned communities and roads and other things. When new things were added, they were not added according to any comprehensive plan."

The most crucial, purposeful moment in Shelby Farms' history happened last December when the Shelby County Commission approved that conservation easement Adams referenced, which in effect locks out residential and commercial development for at least 50 years.

For once, a broader picture of the park emerged.

"The easement prohibits the worst kind of development that people might imagine," Adams said. "There can never be a Wal-Mart, there can never be a strip mall or apartments or a hotel."

Revenue generators

The conservancy's master plan will address potential revenue generators for the park, such as adding vendors and tenants much like the ones operating there now, including the horseback rentals, the paddleboat rentals and the BMX bicycle group.

"It's not a 10-year plan, it's not a 40-year plan, but it's a 100-year plan," Adams said. "We have to anticipate how people are going to recreate 100 years from now and leave open opportunities for change."

Adams envisions such offerings as mountain-bike and inline-skate rental outfits, an ice cream or coffee shop and many more special events that bring with them coveted revenues.

"If you want to achieve real order and greatness, you have to know where you're going, and that's what the master plan will afford us - an opportunity for these changes and improvements," she said.

Look, touch, be involved

The new organization has a Web site, www.shelbyfarmspark.org, which is up and running, although most of the tabs have yet to be populated with information.

Adams said the site soon will contain notices about public meetings and exhibits, as well as surveys about park usage. One goal of the conservancy will be to discover who uses the park and how they use it, whether it's flying a kite or riding a bike.

"And then we want to reach out to the larger community to discover who's not using the park, why not and what we can provide that would compel them to become part of this," Adams said.

She added that if anyone is concerned about the future of the park - and so far no group has raised objections - they should ask to be involved with the process to make sure their voices are heard.

Wharton called Shelby Farms Park one of the county's great treasures that should be enjoyed by all. He said the conservancy's presence will only increase the park's value.

"I don't want people to get the impression, however, that it is like a display at a museum where you're told to look, but don't touch," Wharton said. "We want people from across our community to touch the park by making full use of its many amenities, including those that will be developed in the coming years as the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy works to develop and implement a master plan to make Shelby Farms a world-class park."

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