On Boats and Bikes
It’s too bad we haven’t put as much thought into Beale Street Landing as we have with our bike lanes.
The Great Mississippi River Flood of 2011, unfortunately, did not wash away Beale Street Landing at Tom Lee Park. If it had, Memphians would have been spared several million dollars and the biggest downtown fiasco since The Pyramid.
Instead, the receding floodwaters brought the news that Beale Street Landing will cost an additional $7 million to $10 million, plus $9 million in tax incentives, for an overnight riverboat company with no ongoing operations.
As if a $38 million boat dock and park is not incentive enough.
The Memphis City Council, faced with an in-for-a-penny, in-for-a-pound decision and a vague promise of 580 jobs, agreed without debate to front the additional funds for this tourist bauble, even as it was making cuts in everyday services for Memphians.
Beale Street Landing, scheduled for completion in 2012, will have a restaurant. The operator has not been chosen and the build-out costs will likely be added to the tab. It will have a gift shop, a parking lot for cars, and a dock for overnight riverboats of the sort that plied the Mississippi River until a few years ago when they went out of business. It will have nice views of the river and a cylindrical ramp and concrete pods in the river to stand on at low water.
But it will not have a connection to Mud Island, so near yet so far, which will make the 30-year-old river park (with its long-closed restaurants) even more of an orphan than it already is. Nor is it clear what will happen to the existing Memphis Riverboats operation that, without fanfare or public funding, offers day trips from the cobblestone landing. Rebuilding the landing is a separate project, estimated to cost $7 million. Work has not begun on that.
Benny Lendermon, the head of the Riverfront Development Corporation, once called Tom Lee Park “the worst riverfront park in the country.” The statement is not only debatable, it is outrageous coming from someone who has had the power to do something about it for ten years.
The park suits the needs of Memphis in May, with its barbecue contest and Beale Street Musicfest. But there’s a price. Thousands of fans trample the grounds and keep it closed for general use in April and May. For those of us who use the park daily or weekly to walk, bike, and run the steps up the bluff, it has wide sidewalks, benches, the Tom Lee monument, some struggling shade trees, and (padlocked) bathrooms. If those things are not maintained, it is the fault of Lendermon and the RDC. The view of an 18-barge tow gliding toward one of the bridges is an only-in-Memphis experience. “Worst” riverfront park? Hardly.
Granted, Tom Lee Park is spare. It is no Six Flags. But the only thing stopping the RDC from adding a volleyball pit, skate park, splash park, playground, bike path, shaded pavilion, food trucks, water fountains, more trees, more art and sculpture, historical markers, and a connection to the cobblestones is the RDC.
When it was created ten years ago, I had high hopes for the RDC. Lendermon was an affable and capable city division director. The board was inspired by the can-do spirit of AutoZone Park and its surroundings. The RDC’s groundskeeping and improvement of the Bluffwalk, Greenbelt Park, and Mud Island have been exemplary.
But it became apparent after a few years that the RDC was star-struck by celebrity board members and fixated on big projects such as the aborted land bridge and Beale Street Landing instead of things that could be done relatively quickly and inexpensively.
Memphians seem to be showing a preference for thrifty public/private improvements over tax-sucking projects. The bike trail to Shelby Farms is one good example. Bike lanes on city streets are another. Their major requirements are some thoughtful planning, advocates, and little more than a stripe and signs on the chosen roads.
If bike lanes work, they promote connectivity, fitness, and reduced consumption of gasoline, not to mention less traffic. If they don’t work, then there is a stripe in the road that can be ignored or painted over.
Would that we could say as much for Beale Street Landing.