Long before I thought of running for office, I led a grass-roots effort to save the Libertyland amusement park.
http://www.memphisflyer.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A12359 The Save Libertyland! organization saw it as an affordable place for families with children to go for recreation, a source of over 500 summer jobs for inner-city teens, and a part of Memphis’ unique cultural and historical legacy. We held several rallies and innumerable press conferences; got over 1000 signatures on our on-line petition; went door to door in the Cooper-Young area to secure hundreds of petition signatures; and lobbied the City Council, City Administration, and the MidSouth Fair.
Public support was overwhelming; to this day, people stop me on the street to thank me for my efforts, and more people recognize me from my Libertyland work than from being a County Commissioner. We brought in two different private amusement park companies which were interested in taking over the amusement park without any public subsidy and were convinced it could be run at a profit.
In late 2006, we arranged for the City to sign a letter of intent with one of the companies to reopen the park. The company would invest $5 million, hire locally, and seek no tax incentives. Unfortunately, the City Administration changed its mind in early 2007, thinking (incorrectly) that the park would interfere with its plans for a new football stadium.
However, Save Libertyland! did save the historic Grand Carousel, a 95-year old prize and one of the last few “Dentzel” carousels in working condition. Our efforts caused the City to assert its ownership interest in the Carousel and prevent it from being auctioned off in pieces by the MidSouth Fair. The Carousel has now been dismantled and stored, and plans are under way to reassemble it nearby at the Children’s Museum of Memphis, using private funds.
We have also saved the famed Zippin Pippin rollercoaster, an 85-year-old classic, the second-oldest working wooden rollercoaster, and the favorite ride of Elvis Presley (who rode it in his last public appearance before his death). Since 2007, the Tennessee nonprofit corp. Save Libertyland! , Inc. has owned the Zippin Pippin and has offered it free of charge to the City if it will preserve it. In August 2007, I sponsored a resolution expressing the county’s support for these efforts, granting the Memphis Heritage organization $15,000 for a feasibility study, and pledging to match any City contributions toward preserving the Pippin (up to $100,000). I also successfully sought $10,000 in state grant money to fund the feasibility study. Completed in early 2009, the feasibility study acknowledged that the Pippin would have to be moved from its current location, but outlined several suitable locations for the rides.
During this period, I got the Pippin listed on the National Historic Register. This helped in our efforts to raise awareness and generate national interests. We then worked at length with former Mayor Dick Hackett, current Director of the Children’s Museum of Memphis, and various members of the Herenton and Wharton Administrations on plans to rebuild a version of the Pippin over at the Children’s Museum, near the restored Grand Carousel.
Unfortunately, we could not get the Wharton Administration interested enough in the Children’s Museum idea to act any time soon. In the meantime, the Administration gave us a Christmas Eve 2009 deadline for demolition of the Pippin if we didn’t remove it from City property. Asserting our legal rights while negotiating in good faith with the City, we worked out an agreement whereby the City would carefully dismantle the Pippin and wrap and stack the salvageable parts for storage and preservation, in the hopes that it could be rebuilt. Thanks goes to former City Councilman Tom Marshall, the architect overseeing Fairgrounds demolition, who was cooperative on this front.
And then, a crucial eleventh-hour development. In January 2010, I made contact with the Mayor of Green Bay, Wisconsin, which owns the city-run amusement park Bay Beach. I gave Mayor Jim Schmitt a tour of Memphis and the Pippin, and we then negotiated the sale of the Pippin so that Green Bay can rebuild it up in Wisconsin for use at Bay Beach. While not as good as keeping the Pippin in Memphis, the Green Bay deal will keep the Pippin legacy alive, and give it a good home in a great, affordable, family-friendly city amusement park (like Libertyland was), so that families and children can enjoy it for another 87 years. The deal was signed and made official on March 18, 2010.
Working hard on all this for years were original Save Libertyland members Denise Parkinson, Misty White, Mike McCarthy, John Dulaney, Foster Bunday, and myself. McCarthy is a local independent filmmaker working on a documentary depicting the Save Libertyland” story. [See: guerillamonsterfilms.com and DestroyMemphis.com] Working almost from the beginning were devoted helpers like David Upton, as well as friends who’ve worked for years like Tom Foster, Heidi Knockenhauer, Nicole Perugini, and Sarah Stramel, along with many many other devoted citizens.
Many of these folks were present at the 11/1/10 dedication of the historic marker for Libertyland and the Pippin, paid for with some of the proceeds from the Pippin’s sale to Green Bay. Located on East Parkway near Young, by the old entrance to Libertyland, the marker has text about Libertyland on one side and text about the Pippin on the other. It stands as testimony to the efforts of all those who worked so hard to preserve Libertyland, the Pippin, and the Carousel, and who, by my count, got two out of three, and made a memorable try for the third.
Remember Libertyland, Inc.
Jimmy Ogle, President
John Dulaney, Treasurer
Heidi Knockenhauer, Secretary
For more general information about grass-roots efforts on overall Fairgrounds Redevelopment, check out http://www.livefrommemphis.com/midtownsquare, the web site of the local grass-roots group Midtown Square, which is an offshoot of the original Save Libertyland organization.