City Council attorney Allan Wade issued a ten-page statement on December 31, saying that the City of Memphis has no right to limit the Memphis Zoo’s use of the Overton Park Greensward for zoo parking. This is pure nonsense.
Let’s review the facts.
All 342 acres of Overton Park are owned by the City of Memphis. The park’s historic Greensward is supposed to be managed for public enjoyment under a management agreement with the Overton Park Conservancy. When this agreement was negotiated in 2012, representatives of the Memphis Zoo and all other park entities were at the table and approved it.
Zoo leaders have had decades to build a parking garage, or come up with another reasonable solution to their growing parking needs, yet instead they have chosen to blame everyone else for the traffic problems they create. Our group has been in meetings with zoo leaders many times and we’ve been amazed by their steadfast refusal to work proactively with the City to solve their traffic problem.
When Mayor Wharton tried to find a reasonable compromise for the zoo’s parking problem, he was publicly attacked by Zoo CEO Chuck Brady. When park users protested the abuse of the Greensward, they were threatened with arrest and lawsuits by Brady and other zoo employees.
Brady has stated that the zoo takes in $900,000 to $1,000,000 yearly from Greensward parking alone, and that the zoo parks more than 20,000 vehicles on the Greensward on approximately 64 days per year. Clearly the zoo is making a substantial profit from parking on public parkland, yet none of that money goes back to Overton Park or the City. Why not?
The zoo’s 1994 contract is an outdated agreement between the Memphis Zoological Society (MZS) and the Memphis Park Commission, an entity that was disbanded in 2000, and was intended to boost a new nonprofit organization working to revive a failing zoo.
Under the terms of this contract, the City gives MZS unlimited free gas and oil, free vehicles and vehicle repair, free repair and maintenance of all zoo buildings, free plumbing and electrical repairs, free tree maintenance, subsidized water and insurance, and $1.1 million per year in cash.
In return, MZS is required to supply a yearly audited financial report on zoo operations. Does the City Council have this information? If so, why can’t it be made public?
In addition to the above subsidies, the City Council has provided tens of millions to build zoo exhibits over the years, most recently $5 million to help fund the new Zambezi River exhibit. Zoo leaders say they expect this new exhibit to increase zoo attendance by 15%, yet they have no plan to handle the increased vehicle traffic. Why not?
Finally, the City of Memphis has the legal right to terminate the 1994 MZS contract with 60 days’ notice “whether or not good cause exists for any such termination.”
Given the huge City subsidies the zoo enjoys each year, it is unconscionable that public parkland in the heart of Overton Park is being treated as just another profit center for the zoo. We think it is time for the City Council to cancel the zoo’s 1994 contract and replace it with a more equitable deal for City taxpayers.
And it’s time for the Memphis Zoo to get off the Greensward and start acting like a good neighbor.
Here’s what you can do to help
2. Get GOOL on your lawn…. Order a yard sign from our website: savethegreensward.org and donate to our campaign.
It’s your park, it’s time to take it back.
Jessica Buttermore is an Administrative Associate for the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy at The University of Memphis, and in the Graduate Program in City and Regional Planning. She is also the president of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park.