By Deborah M. Clubb
Mud Island River Park opens Saturday for its 20th season - and an uncertain future.
The unique and much-maligned $65 million facility will be operated by the nonprofit Riverfront Development Corp. this year, under direction of former city public works director Benny Lendermon.
RDC leaders and their consultants are crafting plans that could radically transform or even demolish Mud Island park in the next two to three years, Lendermon said.
But this Saturday, the park reopens with a spring festival of bunnies, live music, egg hunts and rubber ducky races.
And visitors will again find the Mississippi River Museum; the tree-lined, five-block scale-model River Walk; four pedal boats on the scale-model Gulf of Mexico; the World War II Memphis Belle under its fabric dome; three gift and souvenir shops; and three places to eat.
"We're going to be more friendly, more people-oriented . . . showcase things better," Lendermon said of the upcoming season.
"We can assume in the future things will be changing and reconfiguring, but in the meantime, we have a huge number of assets that can be a great experience for tourists and residents."
Mud Island attendance fell 5 percent last season, from 152,328 to 145,322, after scorching summer temperatures and fewer amphitheater concerts.
RDC officials hope special holiday events aimed at families will boost use of the park this season.
Two privately operated businesses - an art and souvenir shop and the River Terrace Restaurant - remain. Other gift shop spaces that had been under private contract will be used by the park staff, one as the second gift shop operated by staff and one as a meeting or picnicking room for school or senior tour groups.
Entertainment Foods, concessionaire for the park, operates the River Center Deli and the Gulfport Cafe and caters special events in Harbor Landing or other parts of the park.
The Memphis Belle Memorial Association's volunteers and board members are repairing and cleaning the vintage bomber and the pavilion area and restocking the gift trailer, said association vice president Jim Harris.
Volunteer Belle docents will be scheduled on weekends to conduct tours, joining the park's paid interpreters who answer questions about river life and lore.
Mud Island has been consistently controversial for its construction cost, admission policies and failure to draw visitors.
The park's 52 acres, stretching between the core of downtown and the Mississippi River, are prime property in the eyes of the RDC board and the consultants hired to devise a master plan for redevelopment of the Memphis waterfront.
RDC chairman John Stokes has spoken forcefully about the need to make admission to the park free.
RDC vice chairman Kristi Jernigan has said the park's facilities are boring and outdated.
The latest option offered by planning consultants would create an encircled harbor area similar to Baltimore's. A land bridge would link the foot of Court Avenue to Mud Island park on the north while a footbridge would link Beale Street on the south.
The facility could remain a public park and possibly become home to the Memphis in May International Festival. Or it could serve a mixture of uses or be entirely developed with only a strip of parkland on the Mississippi River side, consultants have said.
During a tour of the park last week, Lendermon said RDC will manage the park under the city's budget and policies until July 1, when a more comprehensive contract is expected to give the nonprofit agency management and development control of all public property along the waterfront.
The park has 12 to 14 full-time employees and a pool of 50 to 80 seasonal workers.
Lendermon and onsite manager Trey Giuntini are pushing to make the park look better, including its banks along the Wolf River Harbor and the Mississippi River. State transportation workers will clear debris, undergrowth and some trees from the Mississippi River side to keep the view open, Lendermon said.
DOT will do that work in exchange for state use of land beneath the Interstate 40 bridge while seismic improvements are made to the span.
Consultants have floated possibilities such as preserving the scale model of the Mississippi River while relocating the park's Mississippi River Museum. They envision a landmark-quality park on the property's southern tip.
MUD ISLAND HOURS
Saturday through May 25: 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day except Monday.
May 26-Sept. 3: 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. seven days a week. Reduced hours and a six-day week return on Sept. 4.
Admission: $8 for adults 18 to 59. $6 for adults 60 and older and youngsters 5 to 17. Children 4 and under get in free. Shelby County residents qualify for half-price admission.
Season passes: $45 for family, $25 for individuals available at the park's Front Street admission booth or at 576-7241. A new $10 walking pass is being developed that would allow access strictly for strolling or jogging in the park.
- Deborah M. Clubb: 529-2351
By Jim Weber
(Color) Alisa Bradley spiffs up the freshwater aquarium in the Mississippi River Museum to help prepare for Mud Island's spring opening this Saturday.
Copyright (c) 2001 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN
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