Thursday, January 18, 2001

Guest Editorial: Considering All Options Will Produce Best Riverfront

Commercial Appeal
By Dean Jernigan

Dean Jernigan is co-founder of the Memphis Redbirds and chairman and chief executive officer of Storage USA.

FOUR years ago, when my wife, Kristi, and I began thinking about bringing a higher level of baseball to this region, we considered many options. We weighed the option of purchasing the former Memphis Chicks against soliciting Major League Baseball for a triple-A expansion franchise.

We considered renovating Tim McCarver Stadium vs. building a new ballpark in east Shelby County vs. building a state-of-the-art ballpark in the core of downtown Memphis. We considered whether to follow traditional roles of team ownership or to give ownership of this amenity to the citizens of the Mid-South.

A tremendous amount of public discussion surrounded each element of these options. The Commercial Appeal published articles and editorials. Every talk radio host seemed to have a different opinion about every option but one: The one clear consensus was that the new ballpark should be built in east Shelby County - it didn't really matter where, as long as it was far away from downtown.

Still, Kristi and I insisted on giving careful consideration to all the options. Last season, more than 900,000 people enjoyed baseball in AutoZone Park, and many of them were re-introduced to downtown Memphis. I think most were pleased.

Similarly, we must consider all options in the riverfront master plan. There is a very important reason for hiring planners from diverse regions who possess varying experiences with waterfronts: They bring a fresh and informed perspective to elements that those of us who are closest to them might not otherwise see.

World-class planners make great efforts to learn and understand the nuances of a new place and the culture of its people before they begin the planning process. Cooper-Robertson & Partners has met with more than 200 people from our city and county to do just this for the Memphis riverfront.

A world-class riverfront will have a significant cost structure. The best way to secure the required finances is through development opportunities. The planners have been charged with creating a plan that is economically feasible. Therefore, they must identify city land that can be developed and generate a revenue stream.

The Overton Heirs property is one prominent area of our city that our founders had the foresight to set aside for public use. This land probably cannot be developed for private commercial use.

The city has full control of this promenade, which unfortunately includes many visual and physical barriers to the riverfront. By eliminating some parking garages and other poorly designed structures, we can enhance and create a great civic green space, while removing barriers to the riverfront. This space could become our Central Park.

Tom Lee Park is a wonderful green space on Riverside Drive, but it is grossly underused throughout the year, except during the Memphis in May festival. It is important to study the concept of moving Tom Lee Park into the core of our central business district, onto the Overton Heirs property along the bluff and Front Street.

This green space could benefit all of downtown, and could be used 12 months out of the year. I don't know what the best use might be for the land opposite Riverside Drive that is the present site of Tom Lee Park, but I strongly doubt it would need to be green space if we are successful in moving Tom Lee Park onto the Overton Heirs property.

We need not worry now about that ultimate use. Instead, we should pursue with vigor such things as the development of Mud Island, the creation of a magnificent lake at the foot of our bluffs, and a beautiful new green space in the middle of our downtown named Tom Lee Park. The new Tom Lee Park could become a great home for Memphis in May, allowing it to have an economic impact on all of downtown.

Our master planners are extremely competent and are presenting a number of options for our collective consideration. We do ourselves and our city a tremendous disservice by deciding against one or another of these options prematurely.

We must be big thinkers, and we must venture outside of our comfort zones. Let us commit to having open minds in considering all possibilities.

Copyright 2001 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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