Friday, May 14, 1999

What to Do With City's Top Asset; Head of Riverfront Panel Says Memphians' Support Is Crucial

Memphis Business Journal
By Jonathan Scott

An answer to the question of what to do with the riverfront has eluded Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton throughout his first two terms in office.

Now, after more than half a decade of starts and stops, efforts to transform the city's riverfront into an attractive and commercially profitable cornerstone of Downtown redevelopment are set to begin again.

Late last month Herenton appointed members of the Riverfront Steering Committee. Its chairman, John Stokes Jr., says he expects to move quickly in deciding the best use of what may be the most valuable real estate in Memphis - and an area that many consider to be the community's most attractive natural asset.

Many taxpayers may greet as good news the chairman's belief that few, if any, additional tax dollars will be needed to fund a development plan.

While various riverfront plans have been adopted by the administration, Stokes says the steering committee's proposal will adopt a plan only if it is embraced by Memphians.

"Developing this plan must involve as much of the Memphis citizenry as possible," says Stokes, vice chairman of Morgan Keegan & Co. "This will not be a plan that is decided on among ourselves, but one that has input from all different factions of the city and a plan that generally meets with the approval of the folks of Memphis."

In all likelihood, this means that Herenton's costly riverfront plan to transform the harbor into a lake will fall by the wayside. For the present, however, the lake plan and other proposals will be up for discussion, Stokes says.

"We will consider it along with everything else and listen to the pros and cons and decide what is the best to do," he says. "There are those who object to the lake project and plenty who think that it is a great idea."

Herenton has struggled to find a workable development plan for the riverfront since his first term as mayor. After several months of study, in mid-1995 the administration proposed an $8 million plan that included floating shops and restaurants, walkways, docking facilities for large passenger boats, renovation of the cobblestones, and a fountain plaza at the foot of Union Avenue.

By year's end, the project cost had mushroomed to $11million.

In 1996, the proposal was replaced by a far more ambitious - and costly - plan that called for dam construction to transform the harbor into a lake, and the extension of Beale Street westward from where it now deadends on Riverside Drive to the southern tip of Mud Island.

Environmentalists, fearful of the impact on the river, balked at the plan. Some taxpayers thought the more than $50 million cost was, perhaps, not the best use of the public's money.

After several years and many attempts to obtain federal and state government financial assistance for that riverfront development plan, the administration decided earlier this year to take the initiative back to the community.

At a public workshop last February, about 100 people voiced their ideas about what to do with the area. One suggestion was for a riverfront task force, which served as the impetus for the creation of the present steering committee, says Stokes.

Other proposals that came out of the workshop are serving as a sort of framework to guide the steering committee in its planning. For instance, ideas such as improving access to Mud Island, lessening the barrier to the riverfront created by the high traffic volumes and speeding vehicles on Riverside Drive, better docking facilities for river boats, and preserving the cobblestones are all on the committee's list of possible and reasonable goals of any riverfront development plan, says Stokes.

Another main component of the plan will involve the private sector, he adds.

"I don't think there can be a riverfront project that does not involve the private sector and (provide) a lot of development opportunities for the private sector," says Stokes.

"In fact, that is as important as anything else. We do think there is a lot of land available that lends itself beautifully for development. One of the advantages to Memphis is that the city itself already owns a lot of the property, and the city can do a lot toward the development of a part of it."

The city also has some $12 million in hand already for the development of the riverfront, he adds. But another one of the steering committee's objectives will be to determine how to obtain more money, without additional tax dollars, to fund the redevelopment.

Even though past development proposals have failed to materialize completely, bits and pieces of these plans have been constructed and endorsed by the public this decade, Stokes says.

For example, nearly $15 million has already been spent on the expansion of Tom Lee Park, the renovation of Riverside Drive, the new Welcome Center, the nearly completed Bluff Walk, Greenbelt Park, and engineering studies that can be used for future development.

Stokes says other riverfront initiatives could also move forward fairly quickly, once the steering committee is up and running and the public is brought into the process. The first meeting of the steering committee is expected to be held later this month.

"In the end, we want to do things that will attract people to our riverfront," he says. "We want to not only attract tourists, but the people who live here. I think it is important to try to identify those things that everyone agrees are good ideas and things that can be done quickly, not cost much money, and improve the riverfront. We want to have most everything done and developed and be able to start actual work by the first of the year, or thereabouts."

© 1999 American City Business Journals Inc.

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