Thursday, June 26, 1997

Editorial: Rising Cost Disturbs Picture-Perfect Lake

Commercial Appeal

THE WORD pictures and architectural renderings of a renovated Memphis Harbor may be captivating, but do the odds for success justify the price? A price that has just jumped at least $13 million.

Right now, it's the federal and state governments that will tackle the question. If they decide the game has gotten too rich, local taxpayers will have their turn.

Mayor W. W. Herenton had a great idea: Continue to develop and renovate the downtown riverfront so it would entice tourists, puff up local pride and generate economic growth. In the process, he said, the different parts of downtown - from South Main and Beale Street to Mud Island and the Wolf River - should be tied together to allow and encourage people to move along the whole length of the riverfront.

The mayor had a substantial amount to build on. Redevelopment has been proceeding, sometimes erratically, for two decades. Even so, he has given the project new life and enthusiasm and an expanded mission.

But will enthusiasm be mugged by rising costs?

A feasibility study released Tuesday estimates that Herenton's harbor plan, including a 36-acre recreational lake enclosed by dams that would link Mud Island to Beale Street and the Interstate 40 welcome center, will cost $43.2 million instead of the $25 million to $30 million that Herenton announced last September.

The higher cost is attributed to the need for a channel at the northern tip of Mud Island, a bridge over the channel and upgraded docking facilities for riverboats. The new channel would connect the harbor north of the lake to the Mississippi River. For safety reasons, it would replace plans for a channel closer to the Hernando DeSoto Bridge.

Some of the details even have downtown residents scratching their heads. Can the southern tip of Mud Island, for instance, really be raised for private development? In this year's flooding, the Mississippi rose almost to the flagpole on the top of the tip. It sounds like a massive, lengthy job of dredging and filling.

Herenton maintains a positive attitude. His plan, he insists, ''will serve as a catalyst for even greater downtown residential and commercial development.'' He says a ''major riverboat company'' is considering a move to Memphis - something more solid, one would hope, than a ferry service to Tunica.

Publicist Carol Coletta reports that ''some of the biggest entertainment folks around'' showed interest in the harbor plan at an urban entertainment meeting in Los Angeles last spring.

''When you say we're extending Beale Street to an island out in the middle of the Mississippi River, that gets people's attention,'' she said. Well, it's really not out in the middle. Sidney Shlenker thought he had captured the attention of his California friends with his grand plan for The Pyramid. Memphians are likely to feel more reassured when those entertainment folks start investing.

As things stand, the state has committed $7 million for the harbor plan and the city says it is seeking at least $20 million in federal funds. The new cost estimate, presumably, will raise the city's requests. Herenton will host U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater for a riverfront tour this weekend.

Public works director Benny Lendermon suggests that Memphis is due the same federal help that Indianapolis and New Orleans got for similar projects. Memphis has been singing that blues song for decades, but maybe Lendermon is right. Maybe Washington, in the midst of a drive to balance the budget and deep cuts in urban programs, will develop a sudden soft spot for one neglected Southern city.

Or maybe Memphians will have to decide whether they want to find more millions on their own. There's no disputing the attractiveness of the plan - or the difficulty of paying for it.

Copyright (c) 1997 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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