Friday, February 18, 2005

RDC gets offensive in Promenade battle

Memphis Business Journal
By Amos Maki
Link to original

The Riverfront Development Corp. is embarking on an image offensive.

The agency charged with planning, operating and enhancing the riverfront and its parks, including Mud Island River Park, is launching a public relations campaign.

"We feel like one thing we haven't done is market the parks to the public," says RDC president Benny Lendermon. "The idea is we need to tell people these parks exist and are there for them to take advantage of."

The RDC has inked a $35,000 deal with Archer Malmo to come up with a marketing plan and a budget to implement it. Radio spots touting Mud Island and Downtown's other green spaces will appear on local radio stations next month. The spots will appear on Memphis Radio Group FM stations WGKX-106, WSRR-98.1, WRBO-103.5 and WJZN-99.

RDC officials say they want to inform the public about Mud Island, which opens annually in April, being free to the public and about the other dozen parks the agency operates.
But another major reason for the PR push is to bolster the RDC's plan for the area known as the Promenade. Since plans for the Promenade were announced, the RDC has been involved in a protracted battle with a grassroots group called Friends For Our Riverfront that is opposed to planned changes. The group is a mix of environmentalists, concerned citizens and heirs to the city's founding fathers -- who set aside the area known as the Promenade in an easement.

As the RDC prepares to implement the Promenade plan the city council approved almost a year ago, FFOR is preparing to fight them all the way.

"We are not backing away, absolutely not," says John Gary, vice president of FFOR. "We will continue to hold them to task. We want the riverfront to be revitalized, but we want it done in a way that honors the easement and historical character of Downtown Memphis."

The plan calls for reshaping a four block area of the riverfront from Union to Adams by using private development to pay for public improvements to the area. The RDC claims private developments would pay for projects like a proposed two-level promenade and the relocation of parking garages -- from prime real estate with stunning river views atop the bluffs -- underground. The plan also calls for pedestrian bridges that would stretch across Monroe and Court and for improvements to sidewalks on the Promenade.

Currently, much of the land is virtually inaccessible to most of the public, but it offers breathtaking views of the river. The RDC plan calls for increasing the public space by more than 60%, from 3.76 acres today to 6.03 acres.

FFOR wants the city to keep the easement in place and convert the area into park space.
Lendermon and other RDC officials say if the public is more aware of the park space already available Downtown, the FFOR push for park space could be batted down.

"I think there is a constituency that wants the Promenade property to become a park and the folks who believe that, it will be very difficult to change their minds because they believe it for philosophical reasons," says RDC spokesman Dorchelle Spence. "But when they talk to the broader community we thought a good educational marketing campaign would be helpful so people aren't blind-sided when they say, 'Would you rather have a park or a building?' Well, if you ask me that out of context I'd probably say I'd rather have a park, too."

During a slide presentation at a recent RDC board meeting, officials showed images of banners, similar to the ones stretched across Peabody Place parking garages, applied to the garages along Front Street. But these banners included catchy phrases like "Your car shouldn't have this kind of view" and "Pretend I'm a cafe." Spence isn't sure if those slogans will actually appear on the banners, but the RDC board erupted in laughter and approving nods when they appeared on the screen.

Gary, who attended the meeting, says he isn't impressed.

"Why do they need public relations if their idea is so good?" he says.

Lendermon says FFOR waged a successful PR campaign of their own, one that painted the RDC as an enemy of park space and in the pocket of big-money developers.

"There's no doubt about it," he says. "But we think information has been twisted and people have been misled. What we basically do is build and maintain parks. We would like to do something other than build parks.

"We maintain 275 acres of park land along the riverfront that we've improved," Lendermon says. "I've personally been involved in adding a big portion of that. But at some time you have to have something along the riverfront other than parks."

The contract with Archer Malmo is for a year, but Lendermon says the RDC's focus on getting their message across will continue far past that time frame as the agency moves forward with a legal strategy to implement the plan.

"The legal process, depending on the number of appeals, is going to take two years," Lendermon says.

In all likelihood, Spence says, that could mean two more years of the RDC-FFOR feud.

"They continue to be active," she says of FFOR. "They're researching the legal issues surrounding the Promenade. Everywhere our attorneys go, they've either been or they're right behind our attorneys in getting there. They're committed to what they think is best, as are we."

© 2005 American City Business Journals Inc.

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