Friday, April 21, 2006

Always Watch the Money

From this story on the dismantling of the Fairgrounds and the sale of its rides and attractions:
Fair officials are selling park rides and equipment, in part, to help fund a potential forced relocation of the fair. The fair's future at the fairgrounds, beyond this year's 150th anniversary event, is in doubt because the city and county plan to redevelop the 170-acre complex.

A grass-roots organization attempting to save Libertyland has suggested that park rides may belong to local government.

City Atty. Sara Hall's office has been investigating the issue. But city Park Services Director Bob Fouche said, "Preliminarily, it appears that the Mid-South Fair does in fact own virtually all of the equipment over there."
I've said many times I'm just some guy in Midtown who asks questions about things he wants to know more about. The local print and television news media are self-appointed "voices of the people" so I hold them to a high standard of asking questions I want answers to. That's why I'm so tough on them.

That passage leads me to some questions. Is the Mid-South Fair a privately-held business? Or a public one? A public-private partnership? Where's the lease to use the Fairgrounds, which should presumably answer some of those questions?

Who is getting the money for the sale of everything? Is it all going to the Mid-South Fair? Or to the City? The County? At the dinner after the Main Street Journal Candidate Mixer, County Commissioner John Willingham seemed convinced it all belonged to the County but that they money was going to private profit.

If it all belongs to the Mid-South Fair, what will they use the money for? If this year is the last for the Fair (forever, presumably, not just for Memphis) and the Mid-South Fair goes away what becomes of the monetary assets they've accumulated?

These are things I'd like to know, and the fact that they aren't being publicly discussed nor pondered much makes me worry. This city has a distressing habit of handing over public lands and assets to private for-profit business for little City benefit and more than a little (alleged) personal profit for some.

As for the Mid-South Fair itself, I hate to say it but I won't be sad to see it go. It's the tag end of an agricultural history that's long lost its usefulness to modern suburbanites and has been transmuted (at least in Shelby County) into another excuse to mindlessly party. In the general sense, I'm fine with the land becoming public athletic grounds. Promoting that kind of public use by the City with its land is part of a City's duty.

I hate to see a link to our past severed but the Fair's history and reason have nearly no meaning today. It's a relic of an agricultural past of family farms that's gone forever. Knowing the right way to raise pigs and cows and horses, the best way to can and pickle vegetables, the most effective way to knit and quilt, the tastiest way to cook, the smartest way to hunt and shoot, don't mean anything to today's consumers.

Nineteenth century America is hard for most modern Southerners to really understand. You spent all your days on the farm, working all day and into the night. Every Sunday you went to church, which became most of your social group.

Once a year, in that brief period of respite after the hard work of the harvest was done and before the cold, depriving winter set in, you loaded up the wagon and made the trek into Memphis from counties all around the eastern shores of the Mississippi. (Arkansas took care of the western shores.) It wasn't a trip taken lightly. Horse-drawn wagons on dirt roads took a long time to get anywhere, much less across counties.

It was frequently the biggest event, in terms of turnout, you'd ever see. In the days when books were scarce and the money to buy them tight, learning firsthand how to do things you needed to know was vital. Yes, there was competition; that's only human. But the competitions and contests were an opportunity to learn how to keep your family alive.

Everything about a County Fair was built on what you did for a living and what you needed to know. But it was also large enough to support some frivolity like freak shows, dancing girls, muscle men and candy. Farming communities can't support much more than what they are; it takes a huge concentration of people's meager extra income to support the lights and shows of a County Fair. Hence, in part with the demands of an agricultural life's dominance by natural cycles, the fact that they didn't come along very often.

The City of Memphis had disposable income, by virtue of being a business and trading center. But until the mid-20th century, it was a very small place. Very quickly, you'd leave the city proper and get into small farm towns, and then just as quickly be in farm country. Farms for dozens of miles all around. Farmers and the small businessmen who supported farming -- farriers, smithies, general stores, doctors and veterinarians, butchers sometimes.

All that's gone now. The reason for a County Fair is gone now. What remains is the echo, defined by what it reflects against. And so we have an emphasis on the Midway, on entertainment, on gluttony, on mindless immersion in a false representation of an imagined past.

If the Fairgrounds can become athletic grounds, then it seems better we do so. Large open greenspaces are harder to find in this modern age. Only cities and civic-minded property owners can offer them.

If the Mid-South Fair moves to DeSoto County that only seems proper. They are closer there to our agricultural and farming past than Shelby County is by a long shot. The connection there is still meaningful.

My fear, though, is that the Fairgrounds will be chopped up into bits, less useful to Memphians than big open tracts. And that those bits will become yet more retail and commericial space or, worse yet, housing. It may profit the few very handsomely, but it's a terrible abuse of a civic asset. It demands someone look after this change with a view to preserving the open spaces and keeping the public's best interest in mind.

We are sorely lacking in those kinds of public officials.

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