Thursday, October 25, 2007

Smart City and Friends

How a blog and a citizen activist are shaping the riverfront debate.

Posted By on Thu, Oct 25, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Tom Jones and Virginia McLean are making the Riverfront Development Corporation irrelevant.

Jones is the cofounder and main writer for the Smart City Memphis blog (smartcitymemphis.blogspot.com). McLean is the founder and chief activist of the nonprofit Friends for our Riverfront (friendsforourriverfront.org).

They are often on opposite sides of riverfront issues, including the proposed $29 million Beale Street Landing. Jones has emerged as its most articulate and well-informed defender. McLean, equally hip to the latest ideas and trends in parks and cities, is the RDC's most passionate and dogged critic.

Both of them run on shoestring budgets and receive no money from local government or the RDC. Jones, a former newspaper reporter, was a spokesman and policy-maker for Shelby County government for some 25 years. McLean is an heir to the Overton family that was one of the founders of Memphis.

Their websites are timely and frequently updated, and they have become bulletin boards for unusually thoughtful comments, speaker listings, and even occasional news items. When a state official weighed in on Beale Street Landing this month and delayed the project, Jones and McLean were ahead of most if not all of the news pack spreading the word and collecting different points of view.

The RDC, in contrast, often seems muscle-bound. Created six years ago to focus public and private resources and cut red tape, it has a staff of former city division directors and City Hall cronies making six-figure salaries. It also has a blue-chip board of directors including public officials and downtown bigwigs. And it is consistently outhustled, outsmarted, and outmaneuvered by Jones and McLean and their helpers.

While Jones and McLean embrace the Internet and rough-and-tumble debate in real time, the RDC's website is outdated and trite. "Steal away to a day's vacation in the city's front yard," says the home page. "Nowhere else can you feel the rush of the Mighty Mississippi as its breeze flows through your hair and its sunsets warm your soul." The most recent "news" is a June 12th press release and a year-old item about the Tom Lee Park memorial. The description of the master plan still includes the aborted land bridge to Mud Island and pegs the total public cost at a staggering $292 million, which "will spur $1.3 billion in private investment in real estate alone" and bring "a minimum" of 21,000 new jobs and 3,400 new residential units to downtown.

Meanwhile, Jones and McLean are slugging away about the latest delays to Beale Street Landing and the next meeting of the Shelby County Commission. Within the last year, each of them helped bring national experts to Memphis for well-attended discussions of parks and citizen activism. The RDC, meanwhile, made a by-the-numbers Power Point presentation to the Memphis City Council aimed at justifying its own existence as much as informing public officials.

The RDC is not without is success stories. Its park maintenance is exemplary. Its concert series and improvements at Mud Island have made the park more attractive. Its structure involves business leaders and nonprofits in a way that government cannot, although the group's standard claim that it saves money is difficult to prove.

But the riverfront — Tom Lee Park in particular — often seems antiseptic and sterile, like a set-piece instead of a true park. On Sunday afternoon, for example, hundreds of people came to Overton Park in Midtown to beat on drums, whack golf balls, ride bikes, pick up trash, have picnics, toss balls, exercise dogs, visit art galleries, stroll babies, and do whatever. Midtown has no development authority, but funky Overton Park is surrounded by neighborhoods that feel invested in it.

Beale Street Landing looks more and more like a bet-the-company deal for the RDC. Without a big project — the land bridge (aborted), the promenade (still stalled), the relocation of the University of Memphis law school (coming soon) — why not turn its duties back over to a reenergized park commission and city administration? The Memphis riverfront, from The Pyramid to Mud Island to the trolley to proposed Beale Street Landing, doesn't lack for big investments. It lacks vitality, a decent public boat launch, walkable cobblestones, a skate park or something fun to watch, a working fountain next to the Cossitt Library, and enough shade and sprinklers to give tourists a fighting chance against the heat.

If those things happen, it will be because of citizens like Jones and McLean and their readers as much as the RDC.

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