A public fundraising campaign for $1 million is the latest plot twist in the long-simmering parking dispute between the Memphis Zoo and Overton Park.
An April 11 city council resolution stated that latest compromise in the Greensward parking project will only move forward if the Overton Park Conservancy can prove, either with cash or pledges, that it can support $1.5 million, which the total amount estimated for the new parking configuration’s design and construction cost.
The new design would support a parking lot with an additional 415 parking spaces for the Memphis Zoo, which currently uses the Overton Park greensward for overflow parking.
OPC officials assumed they would only need to contribute half of design costs, $250,000, and planned to deliver their share of the design plan costs at the city council meeting on March 21. The OPC has taken to social media to raise funds for the remaining costs before the June 11 deadline.
“We’ve had a strong response from park supporters. We were actually quite surprised by the quick response on the grassroots campaign,” said Tina Sullivan, executive director of the OPC.
The latest resolution grew out of the Memphis Zoo’s insistence on OPC demonstrating it can pay its half of the estimated design and constructions costs before moving forward with the design phase.
The latest resolution grew out of the Memphis Zoo’s insistence on OPC demonstrating it can pay its half of the estimated design and constructions costs before moving forward with the design phase. OPC officials assumed they would only need to contribute half of design costs, $250,000, and planned to deliver their share of the design plan costs at the city council meeting on March 21.
Brady also disclosed that the zoo has its entire share of the estimated project costs, $1.75 million.
The amended parking plan retains nearly an acre of the Overton Park Greensward.
OPC executive director Tina Sullivan argues that most large cities handle their projects on more of a pay-as-go basis.
“They pay for the design first, then they have an idea of construction costs. And then they figure out how they are going to pay for or finance the cost of the construction. We thought the project was going to proceed along that kind of path.”
However, by the end of the city council meeting on April 11, both parties agreed to the new terms set forth in the resolution.
On April 12, the conservancy launched their public fundraising campaign.
Greensward supporters are being asked to donate to the project on faith, while the OPC and the zoo work out an agreement on the design that is acceptable.
Park proponents were uneasy with the initial compromise back in July. Concern that the project would take over a large swath of the contentious greenspace tempered their acceptance. The requirement called for 10 ft. by 20 ft. parking spaces. The new resolution downsizes those spaces to 9 ft. by 19 ft., saving an extra acre of land from development.
“We are aware that we won't raise the full amount by toting buckets through the dog park and on the Greensward. But we are committed to doing everything we can to protect this space."
It was a big concession.
“That was extremely helpful. I think that people who had been on the fence felt more confident that the design phase would move in the right direction,” said Sullivan.
There has already been a strong response.
Individuals have made significant donations including sizable gifts from new supporters. As of Monday, 40 percent of the donations received have come from new donors. And OPC is observing support emerge around the country – 13 states so far.
“We started seeing donations coming in from as far away as California and Utah,” said Sullivan.
Some of the support is coming from former Memphians. Others are people who visited the city in the past and have fond memories of the park. The fact that Overton Park was designed by George Kessler, who also planned New York City’s Central Park, also adds a significance that draws support.
“I think the story has started to spread that this important historic park might be under threat and these people make a small gift. When you start compounding this across the country it really adds up.”
While large donations and viral campaigns are making up a part of the fundraising pie, neighbors and visitors of Overton Park are also helping to make up the difference.
For example, students from nearby Rhodes College are holding bucket brigades at the park to raise funds.
“We are aware that we won't raise the full amount by toting buckets through the dog park and on the Greensward. But we are committed to doing everything we can to protect this space,” said Brooks Lamb, a senior at Rhodes who organized the event.
The $1.5 million cost for design and construction will create an additional 415 parking spaces for the Memphis Zoo, which currently uses the Overton Park greensward for overflow parking.
“If that means collecting donations in five-gallon buckets on the weekend before final exams begin, that's what we'll do.”
A few weeks from graduation, Lamb is completing service work to fulfill his requirements as a Bonner Scholar with the OPC. He is also near completing a book on the park, titled “Our Park: Overton Park’s History Told by Those Who Lived It,” which tells the story of the park through the eyes of Memphians.
While celebrating a recent birthday, he asked well-wishers on Facebook to donate to the OPC instead of sending a gift.
“This was well-received, and several people - including some from North Carolina and Louisiana - donated to the cause,” Lamb said.
Another advocate of the Greensward is Melissa Bridgman. A self-employed artist and mother with an active family, she has limited resources to devote to causes she holds dear. As owner of Bridgman Pottery, she decided to use her business to help with the fundraising campaign.
So, for the last year she has created a line of pottery to help cover the legal expenses the OPC has incurred during its battle with the zoo over the parking issue.
“I took my block print map of Memphis and noticed that Overton Park was in the center of the loop. I developed a line of pottery - cups and small plates - with a block print of the city loop and a heart marking Overton Park,” Bridgman said.
Last year, she gave 50 percent of the sales of those pieces to the OPC. It was an easy and efficient way for her to help. She plans to revive the pieces for the spring and summer. In addition, she also will also donate 25 percent of her sales from the June Day of Merrymaking.
“When I saw that OPC needed to raise $2 million by June 11, I decided to offer a small version of the map plates to anyone who donated for the Greensward effort. I haven't had a tremendous amount of response, but I know that some out-of-town park lovers have donated because of it, and that makes me happy,” Bridgman said.
While acknowledging that the challenge of a once-and-for-all settlement on the parking issue has been difficult, the support the OPC has received from people and organizations near and far has given Sullivan a sense of optimism.
“I feel confident that we are going to meet our goal and we are going to be a stronger organization with a stronger, well-maintained park as we come out the other side of this challenge.”
Correction: An earlier headline read: Overton Park supporters rally to raise $1M to support parking garage for Memphis Zoo, which is incorrect. Funds will support a reconfigured parking lot.