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VOL. 126 | NO. 125 | Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Old Forest Goes New

Overton Park supporters consider forming nonprofit conservancy

By Bill Dries

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A group of 15 citizens forming an Overton Park conservancy hopes to take a plan to the Memphis City Council by Labor Day.

People weigh in on the future of Overton Park at the Memphis College of Art during the first of two public meetings to reimagine the park.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The group holds the second of two public comment sessions Tuesday, June 28, at 5 p.m. at the Memphis College of Art, in Overton Park.

The first session Saturday drew several dozen citizens to MCA. They talked individually with leaders of the Overton Park Conservancy effort. They will take the input and make it part of the specific plan on its way to City Hall at the end of the summer.

“We’re a long way from the finish line,” conservancy movement leader George Cates told the group during introductory remarks. “It’s going to take a lot of money to substitute for the absence of city money. We all know that.”

The concept of a conservancy that would preserve city ownership of the park but shift management of the park to a private nonprofit group raising private funds is a model already in use at Memphis Botanic Garden and Shelby Farms Park.

“It’s about being able to get a little more attention and maintenance and care for the park,” said Martha Kelly, president of Park Friends Inc., the nonprofit group that undertakes volunteer efforts in the park that includes park cleanups and maintenance of natural areas.

Kelly said a conservancy would ease some of the dread that comes with city government budget seasons.

“The city parks are the first thing people start talking about cutting,” she said. “The park department does the best they can. But it’s just not the maintenance and care that this park needs. It’s the crown jewel of the park system.”

The conservancy group has set a goal of raising $5 million for the first five years of park operations.

Cates admits it is “a lot of money.” Then there is another $5 million the group would raise for what Cates and others gauge as the most difficult of three goals – the construction of a 500-space Memphis Zoo parking garage.

Cates said conservancy advocates and the zoo are in support of the garage, which would eliminate the need for vehicles to park on greenspace.

State Sen. Beverly Marrero indicates her involvement during a meeting at Memphis College of Art about the future of Overton Park on Saturday.  A number of people came to weigh in on the future of the park.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“The zoo has graciously and wholeheartedly supported putting it in the present zoo service area,” he said at Saturday’s session. “They want to get off the greensward and will if we can just get a substitute parking area. … We’re really just getting off the ground. It’s going to take a while to get that done. But everybody wants it.”

The conservancy movement gained some urgency after the city in the spring of 2009 unveiled a tentative long-range plan that included a water retention basin in what is the main greensward of the park, east of the Doughboy statue and veterans plaza and south of the golf course.

The idea struck an already sensitive nerve because of overflow parking from the Memphis Zoo on the north end of the greensward. And the zoo’s recent expansion had cleared some trees.

The greensward-basin coupling has since been replaced partially by plans for a city financed Overton Square parking garage that would have a water detention basin beneath the garage.

The presence of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Levitt Shell, MCA and zoo makes Overton Park unique from other parks not only in the city but in the region.

Cameron Kitchen, director of the Brooks, calls it an “arts zone.”

“I think cultural uses work exceedingly well … in park settings,” Kitchen said. “In Memphis it was really the great foresight of 95 years ago that put this cultural institution in the park, looking at what was happening in other great cities. I think it forms a coalition of uses that’s unlike anywhere else. … We just want the park to be as healthy as possible for everyone.”

The conservancy group has already achieved one goal with state legislation in the most recent session of the Tennessee Legislature that protects the 126-acre Old Forest as a state natural area.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has signed the bill, sponsored by state Rep. Jeanne Richardson and state Sen. Beverly Marrero – both Memphis Democrats – into law.

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