With the debate roaring over land rights issues of Overton Park pertaining to The Greensward, several myths need to be debunked. When I refer to the Zoo in this post, I am referring to the current administration of the entity, not the Memphis Zoo itself.
First of all, let’s be clear: This issue is not about parking. Make no mistake, the Zoo expects to be granted more of the Park by the City of Memphis, focusing on expanding into public parkland and old-growth forest, instead of redeveloping its outdated exhibits that dominate the western third of its 75 acres.
The Zoo’s initial refusal to mediate with its park neighbors makes its hubris plain to see. It has also become apparent how much the Memphis City Council has fallen under the sway of the Memphis elite, rather than striving to hear the people it supposedly represents.
City Council Chairman Kemp Conrad noted, “Richard Smith in particular has brought a fresh new approach to mediation and we believe he will be a great help in bringing everyone together with a solution.”
It should also be pointed out that Richard remarked in a tweet that, “My family, and many others” have made the Zoo what it is. His mother, Fred Smith’s wife, Diane, serves as co-chair of the Zoo board. What impresses the Council is the power and prestige of the Smith family and the single-minded booster-ism that Richard cites when he calls the Zoo an “economic generator.”
This statement shows that this cloistered group values money and control over the right to common areas for families without access to second homes or country clubs. Welcome to class warfare, right here in the river city.
While the Zoo does make some money for the regions, it inflates its economic impact on the region based on a quick validation audit. Here’s their formal study: http://www.freepatentsonline.com/…/Busin…/126612060.html.
Let’s look at a key quote: “A non-resident Zoo visitor party of 4.0 persons (2.3 adults with 1.7 children) spends an average of $449 per day on lodging, gasoline, retail shopping, eating and drinking, and visiting other Memphis-area attractions. The survey data further indicate that non-resident Zoo visitors spend an average of 2.3 days in the Memphis area. Thus, the average nonresident Zoo visitor party of 4.0 persons spends about $1,032.70 while visiting Memphis.”
To test these numbers, I asked ten families from out-of-state who had parked on the Greensward about their time in Memphis. Nine of out of ten did not lodge in Memphis, spent money in Memphis for one tank of gas, and bought fast food for the family—an estimated $75-$90 dollars other than the cost of entrance to the Zoo. The other family filled up their tank in Arkansas.
Having served as the author of the City and Region’s Economic Development Plan for the Brookings Institute, I know two things.
One: Memphis should be exceedingly grateful to the Smith family, as logistics remains our most viable economic sector, although it is mature. Yet, this gratitude does not need to allow the family to unduly influence municipal matters outside of their business sector. If they choose to serve on a board or grant a gift to a local non-profit, this is a boon. Having the head of the Zoo board’s son guide City Council members serves only as sad proof that Memphis has turned into an oligarchy. Parks should be for the people, not profits.
Two: There are flaws in the Zoo’s economic impact study. If I can spend an hour debunking the most promising “facts” by talking first-hand to out-of-towners visiting the Zoo, I wonder what a formal study would reveal?
This saga is about poorly planned growth, class struggle, and the clash between economic generation and preservation.
Long-time Memphis and innovation thought leader Michael Graber has released a new book, Going Electric, the culmination of years of field notes from working in the trenches advising more than 100 top companies and non-profits, including Cardinal Health, Mars PetCare, Jack Nicklaus, Hunter Fan, and others. Pragmatic, globally inspiring, and yet infused with Southern charm, Going Electric is a guidebook about building cultures of innovation to craft lasting business value.
As the founder of Southern Growth Studios, a Memphis-based innovation and strategy boutique, Michael’s written prolifically on innovation for GE Ideas Labs, Innovation Excellence, Upstart Business Journal, and many more. His best columns appear in his new book, often delivered through story.