How Shelby Farms Park came to be - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

How Shelby Farms Park came to be

(Source: WMC Action News 5) (Source: WMC Action News 5)

It is nearly five times the size of New York City’s Central Park, 4,500 acres of green space positioned at the population density center of Memphis and Shelby County.

“It’s America’s next great urban park for us now, and the next generations,” said Laura Morris, the Memphis leader who envisioned greatness in the vast meadows of green grass on Memphis’ eastern boundary.

After years of listening tours, master planning sessions and a $70 million dollar capital campaign, Shelby Farms Park will cut the ribbon on its so-called “Heart of the Park” renovation on September 1.

“This could truly be one of the greatest parks in the world; it could transform Memphis,” said Morris in her introduction of Jen Andrews at a Memphis Rotary Club luncheon.

Earlier this year, Andrews was named Executive Director of Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, the nonprofit organization that manages Shelby Farms Park and the Shelby Farms Greenline. More than ten years ago, Morris hired the then freshly minted Rhodes College graduate. Together, the dynamic duo did the seemingly impossible: raised $70 million dollars to transform Shelby Farms Park.

“In her early 20s, Jen was the mastermind behind and the architect of one of the most comprehensive public engagement processes that
had ever happened in Shelby County before,” said Morris of her protégé.

CLICK HERE to see more images of the park.

Andrews showered praise on her mentor and outlined the history of Shelby Farms, which owes its 1920s origins to the Shelby County Correction Center, better known as the “Penal Farm” which now stands adjacent to the park, but has been reduced in size.

“It was a model penal farm with prize milk cows and pigs,” said Andrews.

Shelby County leaders were often tempted to sell off the prime land to make up for budget shortfalls, but after repeated annual debates ultimately resisted that idea. Rolling Meadows and wooded areas became growing recreation hotspots in the 1970s as people started using the vast space beyond the Penal Farm’s barbwire fences. But it wasn’t officially parkland.

“In 2008 when we secured the conservation easement for the property, when Shelby County government gave up its ability to sell the property and acknowledged it as a park forever, that’s really the first time it was a park,” Andrews told Rotarians. 

In 2008, Morris and Andrews announced a $70 million capital campaign; two weeks later, the stock market crashed and a severe economic recession began.  Shelby Farms Park Conservancy decided to keep fundraising but with a new strategy aimed at proving the park’s value with a series of progressive, tangible success stories. They raised enough to build the Wolf River Pedestrian Bridge, connecting Shelby Farms Park to the Wolf River Greenway on its southern boundary.

They opened the now beloved Shelby Farms Greenline, a 6.5 mile abandoned rail line that’s become one of the most popular amenities in the city. The Greenline was just extended eastward another four miles and now stretches 10.65 miles so walkers, runners and cyclists can go from Tillman Street in Binghamton past Shelby Farms Park and beyond Germantown Parkway in Cordova. Andrews revealed the Conservancy has its eye on extending the Greenline another two miles to the east.

As for extending the popular path westward, “The city does have plans to build a bridge that will connect the Greenline to Tobey Park,” Andrews said. A city park on Hollywood and Central Ave. in Midtown. The Woodland Discovery Playground became the third and final demonstration project.

“It’s different from any playground in the world,” said Andrews who added, “It shows we could design and execute at a high level.”      

With a master plan devised by James Corner Field Operations of New York City, a world renowned landscape architecture and urban planning firm, Andrews and Morris approached funders and laid out the dream.

“All of the big corporations stepped up to the plate to help us even though we were in a recession,” Andrews told Rotarians. “They were all visionary and understood they were making an investment that was going to make an impact in the lives of the community and also their associates, clients, visitors,
vendors and employees."

The State of Tennessee invested $5 million, Shelby County $3 million and the City of Memphis $150,000. The rest ---$61,850,000 --- came from private sources. First Tennessee Foundation made a major gift which helped fund the all new Visitor Center, which features a café, gift shop, and expansive restroom facilities. AutoZone funded the Visitor Center Front Porch, complete with Adirondack chairs and gigantic ceiling fans big enough to cool off a Mid-South crowd.

The city’s largest employer, FedEx, stepped up with its trademark philanthropy in a major way. The FedEx Event Center features a ballroom that can seat 550 people and overlooks Patriot Lake. The lake was expanded from 52 to 80 acres and helps provide a comfortable temperature in all the park’s new buildings thanks to a geothermal system.

“There’s actually a pipe on the bottom of the lake. We use the natural temperature of the water to heat and cool buildings. That water is 77 degrees,
so now we only have to cool to 72 degrees when it’s 100 outside,” said Andrews.

An all new walking-running path surrounds Patriot Lake alongside a separate path for cycling. The “Heart of the Park” additions also include a “Spray Ground Splash Pad.”

The Conservancy invited a large group of children to test it out in the summer heat.

“They all reported it is crazy fun,” Andrew said.

The reimagining of Patriot Lake is the centerpiece of the “Heart of the Park.” The county originally dug out the lake to obtain topsoil
to cap an enormous old landfill on the Southside of Walnut Grove at Farm Road. Shelby Farms leaders say the lake and new attractions that surround it that they call the “Heart of the Park” will bring in visitors and dollars that will sustain the rest of the sprawling park grounds.

A magnificent natural amphitheater has a new outdoor stage as a focal point with Patriot Lake as backdrop. In addition, there’s a new restaurant: Kitchen Bistro and Kitchenette. A news release from Shelby Farms Park Conservancy reports all kinds of new extras in the reimagined space: SMART charging stations, additional restrooms, benches and swings, picnic pavilions, boat and bike rental pavilions to go along with over 55 acres of new meadow and 3,000 new trees.

One of the largest urban parks in the country, Shelby Farms Park has many fans who keep up with what’s happening on the park’s Facebook page,
and Twitter feed @ShelbyFarmsPark.

“30 Days of Celebration”  for the amazing improvements begins at 9:00, Thursday morning, September 1, “9/01” on the calendar. Free art, music, nature and fitness events throughout the month of September are designed to reacquaint you with Shelby Farms Park and see the many new additions designed to make it a signature park that will rank among the best in the world.   

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