By Tom Charlier of The Commercial Appeal
David Gross never cared much for golf, anyway.
So there he was Friday morning, celebrating with another 75 or so people the unveiling of a greatly revamped T.O. Fuller State Park in Southwest Memphis. Nearly five years after the park lost its highly regarded golf course to budget cuts, state officials held a ribbon-cutting on a series of improvements that include an $800,000 interpretive center where the old pro shop used to be, a playground on the former site of the No. 9 green, upgraded tennis and basketball courts, a splash pad and other amenities.
The 70-year-old Gross, who lives just west of Whitehaven, said the renovations have made his favorite park even better.
“It’s much more accessible …,” he said. “You have more things to do that are on an up-to-date level.”
The interpretive center, which features indoor and outdoor classroom areas, was funded through matching $400,000 grants from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Praxair Inc. Those two entities also split the cost of the $140,000 splash pad.
In addition, the park received state funding for more than $200,000 to improve existing recreational facilities and build two playgrounds.
Park officials also are undertaking a long-term initiative to covert the former 5,986-yard golf course into a lush wildlife habitat area, complete with a butterfly garden on the former site of a green and walking trails on the old cart paths. They’ve been killing out the Bermuda grass and weeds, which will be replaced with native grasses, and planting native trees.
State officials also have restored the natural hydrology of the former golf course, removing drainage tiles and allowing streams and wetlands to re-establish themselves. And they’ve carved ponds into upland areas to provide water for animals.
Park manager Calvin Robinson said the renovations should help boost T.O. Fuller’s attendance, which has been hovering at about 1 million annually. The new trails already have proven popular with walkers and runners, including members of a middle-school club.
The improvements have been welcomed by longtime users, like Gross, at a park that holds a unique history. Built during the late-1930s by Civilian Conservation Corps camp made up of African-Americans, the 1,138-acre T.O. Fuller was only the second state park in the nation open to black people, according to Tennessee officials. Originally called Shelby County Negro State Park, it was renamed in 1942 in honor of T.O. Fuller, a prominent black teacher, pastor, politician, civic leader and author who, as stated in a park brochure, “spent his life educating and empowering African-Americans.”
The park’s history and significance inspired leaders such as State Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, to push for more funding for the improvements.
Among the speakers at Friday’s ribbon-cutting was James Alexander, a founding member of the Bar-Kays, a famed Memphis soul and rhythm and blues group.
“When I was growing up in the Sixties …, Fuller park was one of the few places that people of color, that black people, could go,” he said.
In his remarks, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau noted that the Fuller project involved a variety of divisions of his department, which oversees not only parks, but water quality, wetlands and wildlife habitat.
“This is really a good experiment, or demonstration, of all the parts of our department coming together,” Martineau said.