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VOL. 129 | NO. 120 | Friday, June 20, 2014

Heart of Park Advances as Shelby Farms Parkway Stalls

By Bill Dries

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Within the space of a few days this month, the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy formally broke ground on the park’s $70 million Heart of the Park project and then its leaders watched as the Memphis City Council delayed the Shelby Farms Parkway project for a year.

The Shelby Farms Park Conservancy has broken ground on the $70 million Heart of the Park expansion project.

(Daily News File Photo)

Both demonstrate the park’s rising popularity and its recurring role in City Council and Shelby County Commission debates about who uses the park and its place among capital spending priorities.

Local leaders, the conservancy and children attending camp in the park used boat paddles Friday, June 13, to break ground on an expansion of Patriot Lake.

The lake’s expansion is a major feature of the creation of a park central hub that will include a retreat center, farm-to-table restaurant, new visitors center, more lakeside pavilions and a stage for events.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell warned that park backers must continue to “sell it” in the face of critics such as County Commissioner Walter Bailey, who argued this month that at least some of the parkland should be sold for residential and commercial development.

“Believe it or not, there are still some doubters out there, and we must convince those doubters,” Luttrell said.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who, during his tenure as county mayor, negotiated and signed off on the contract for the conservancy to operate the park, referred to the commission’s debate about how to improve inner-city youth’s access to the park.

“Those who said folks from the core city would never come out here, look at that greenline in the morning,” Wharton said. “It’s a traffic jam.”

A few days later, inner-city access to the park wasn’t the issue with the council. It was the political fault line between what county government does and what city government does.

Shelby Farms is within the city of Memphis, but the land is owned by county government. With the major exception of Farm Road, the roads that access the park are city roadways.

“There was an awful lot that was going on at City Council and some very important issues that were being addressed,” Laura Adams, director of the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, said Wednesday, June 18, the day after the council decision. “We’re confident that at the right time and with enough information, the council will understand that this project is essential really for the success of both the park and the city.”

There could be a move to get the city’s $6 million share of the parkway funding back into the city’s capital budget at the council’s July 1 session, when the council approves the minutes of this week’s meeting.

The $6 million would be funded over several years and is 20 percent of the $30 million project, with the remainder coming from federal funding through the state of Tennessee.

City Engineer John Cameron said state officials he has talked with have been clear there is a “high probability” the state funding for the parkway will be lost if the project doesn’t move forward now.

Some form of the parkway project has been on the state’s books and in planning for at least 30 years, with the first public hearing in 1984.

Under questioning from council member Wanda Halbert, city Chief Administrative Officer George Little said the road project is a “longstanding” city priority. That’s when the project moved toward a delay.

“If this was brand new, we probably would not prioritize it as high,” he said. “It is a priority given past commitments.”

The Shelby Farms Conservancy weighed its options before agreeing to support the parkway, and that came with certain conditions, including that Walnut Grove Road would not be widened and that Farm Road would cease to be a major through road it was never intended to be.

The city had intended to widen Walnut Grove Road at Farm Road and had approximately $600,000 ready to do so. The city was poised to reallocate that funding to the parkway with council approval this week.

“Our worry is that because the parkway was delayed, that that will put more pressure on a solution that some people may want to include Walnut Grove Road, which we could never agree to,” Adams said. “We could also never agree to a four-lane Farm Road right in the heart of the park.”

Not everyone agrees the parkway is necessary.

“The Sierra Club would love a great park, but we also want to see the money spent where it needs to be spent,” said Dennis Lynch of the Chickasaw Group of the Sierra Club.

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