Posted: Jun 20, 2006 2:17 am
'Save Libertyland' group still battling to keep city's park intact
Photo Matthew Craig/The Commercial Appeal
June 18, 2006
Denise Parkinson, stay-at-home mom and Save Libertyland leader, can be hard-headed, stubborn and, frankly, a pest.
But we probably shouldn't say such things.
"My nickname used to be Tenacious D," said Parkinson, 43, reveling in a personality that's helped rally public and political support for the closed amusement park. "This skateboarder in Little Rock called me Tenacious D when I was trying to save the parks."
These days, Parkinson is part of a colorful collective of locals trying to save Elvis Presley's favorite roller coaster and the rest of a 30-year-old tourist attraction that was shut down late last year by the Mid-South Fair.
There's also Steve Mulroy, a University of Memphis law professor and County Commission candidate with his legal persuasions and trademark black Reeboks and white sweat socks -- "Not a wing-tip man," Parkinson said -- and underground filmmaker Mike McCarthy, who's making a Libertyland documentary to add to an oeuvre that includes "Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis" and "Teenage Tupelo."
Save Libertyland has yet to live up to its name. But the group has recruited a potential new operator -- Robert Barnard of the T-Rex Group, which runs Joyland Amusement Park in Wichita, Kan. -- and successfully pushed the city to make ownership claims on the Zippin Pippin and the Grand Carousel. The latter is said to be worth $1 million.
Fair officials backed off plans to sell those two historic park attractions after the city made its claims, but still plan a Wednesday auction of other rides and equipment.
Mulroy said the city also has a "very strong" legal case for ownership of the rides to be auctioned. Despite City Council backing for that argument, indications are that City Atty. Sara Hall won't try to block the auction.
The auction could be a severe blow to Barnard's -- and Save Libertyland's -- efforts to reopen the park.
But Mulroy said private citizens -- read: folks like those in Save Libertyland -- may be able to take auction-blocking legal action on the city's behalf. He's poised to take that step on Tuesday, Parkinson said.
Such, well, tenacity is a hallmark of Save Libertyland, a low-budget operation that likes to stage press conferences outside the park gates with a microphone and a Fender Princeton Reverb amp that probably dates to Elvis' Pippin-riding days.
"I think both of them are sincerely concerned and dedicated and feel that the park is an asset for the city," said city Park Services director Bob Fouche, speaking of Mulroy and Parkinson. "I'm not saying that I agree with that."
He paused and added, "I think they are sincere. That's about as far as I'd like to go on that one."
Billy Orr, Fair general manager, also opted for a diplomatic response: "We have no animosity or anything against them. ... This is America. They have their point. We have ours."
It's easy, though, to understand why support isn't universal for Save Libertyland's motives and means.
Fair officials closed Libertyland because of its dwindling attendance and financial losses. They want to use the park land to expand the fair.
The city, meanwhile, is studying a redevelopment of the 170-acre Mid-South Fairgrounds -- even the fair's long-term future is in doubt there -- and so may prefer the complex to be a mostly blank canvas.
Support for Save Libertyland is building, though. State Rep. Henri Brooks, a candidate for County Commission, has become a regular at the group's press conferences.
State Sen. Steven Cohen, who's running for Congress, last week became the latest to step behind the Fender amp and join the Save Libertyland choir, touting the park as a source of youth jobs and entertainment.
"We don't have enough activities for our youth, and that's part of the problem with crime," Cohen said. "It costs so much more to arrest a child and ... deal with them in the criminal justice system, than it does to provide a job and activities."
Cohen called Save Libertyland "truly a citizens' effort."
But after nearly seven months of press conferences, letters to the editor, musical benefit shows (featuring the Zippin Pippins, with Save Libertyland's Misty White on drums), City Council committee appearances, blog postings by the group's Nick Davis, legal persuasions and various shows of civic tenacity, the wild ride approaches a crossroads.
Will the auction be stopped, perhaps clearing the way for a new operator?
Or will the auction go forward, clearing the grounds for an expanded fair -- and/or the city's redevelopment?
"It's been a rollercoaster ride," said Mulroy, 42, a graduate of Cornell and the William & Mary Law School.
The ride continues with uncertainty. But of this much, Save Libertyland's leaders seem sure:
"If it weren't for us, no one would have looked into any of this," Mulroy said. "The Mid-South Fair would have sold the rides ... the city would have lost all of that money, and Libertyland would be dead today."
-- David Williams: 529-2310