Tom Lee Redesign May Affect Memphis in May

November 2, 2018 7:15 PM

Will Tom Lee Park's redesign impact Memphis In May?

In its monthly newsletter, Memphis in May International Festival announced Studio Gang, the Chicago team creating a plan to redesign the Riverfront, met with MIM executives to discuss the Tom Lee Park design.

MIM has been working with Studio Gang and Memphis River Parks Partnership to, according to the newsletter, “ensure the redesigned park will protect Beale Street Music Festival patron capacity and full complement of World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest team spaces - not to mention their accompanying economic impact - and preserve the future viability of the festival and its events in Tom Lee Park.”

The final park redesign plan is scheduled for release in December. The initial plan for Tom Lee Park is slated to have landscape and hardscape improvements, including pocket parks with grassy knolls, trees and hills.

The question is - after all this is set in place - how will 225 barbecue teams fit in the park for the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest? And how will more than 27,000 people fit into Tom Lee Park for the Beale Street Music Festival?

The festival would go as planned in 2019, but after that, construction begins. Memphis in May events would have to move beginning in 2020. Where would these events go? The barbecue contest was held in 2011 in Tiger Lane. But that’s a long way from the Mississippi River and downtown hotels. Shelby Farms is a possible site, but, again, that’s a long way from downtown Memphis and its restaurants and hotels. And the traffic problem is another question. Getting thousands of people out of Farm Road and Mullins Station Road?

In its annual report, Memphis in May said it brought in $133.7 million last year in economic impact. And three and a half million tax dollars. Reduced space or a new location is, obviously, going to lower both these amounts.

“For the Beale Street Merchants Association, all Beale Street and all downtown, Memphis in May and the month of May for the festival are clearly the biggest things that happen to us all year long,” says Joellyn Sullivan, vice-president of the Beale Street Merchants Association and owner of Silky O’Sullivan’s on Beale Street. “The hotel occupancy is significant and the economic impact has been very well documented.

“And, to be clear, I am not familiar with the plans for Tom Lee Park. I have no idea. What I read in a newsletter from Memphis in May was the first notice. I saw a little bit about what was going on, but I haven’t seen plans,” says Sullivan

Things are slated to stay the same in 2019 when Memphis will be the honored Memphis in May country, but the next year? “Not only construction, but the ultimate design could decrease capacity for those events and it’s very concerning. We had a little bit of a test with the flood that moved the barbecue (festival) to Tiger Lane. And that definitely had an impact on downtown economics.”

A “key part” of Memphis in May’s mission is “to promote Memphis and, secondarily, Downtown," says Sullivan. "So, it’s a showcase we all have. And our riverfront. To think that venue might not be there for that mutual promotion, that is concerning. Tom Lee Park is what it is. It’s a great, open park that is very welcoming. It’s got sidewalks and benches and it’s already got a play area. It’s an established port that now handles riverboat traffic. People don’t give that riverboat traffic credit. We can tell Downtown when those boats are coming in and out. You can definitely feel the economic impact.”

And, Sullivan says, “Our riverfront has been improving anway. The RiverArtsFest was down here this past weekend. And now we’ve got dueling bridges in terms of bridge lights.

“To be able to have a big, open space downtown that can be a venue for the music fest and barbecue is amazingly special. To have those world class events on the Mississippi River at the foot of Beale where Downtown as a whole can be impacted and showcased is a wonderful, wonderful- thing.”

And if Memphis in May has to move somewhere else like Shelby Farms? “That is devastating. And it’s also probably festival busting. This is not a festival that belongs anywhere but on the Mississippi River. And the whole purpose of Memphis in May, its history, everything about it, is Memphis.” Continue Reading

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