Just as it is possible to be overfed, overpaid, and overnewsed, the Memphis riverfront is overparked. And Mud Island River Park, now 27 years old, could be the odd man out on Old Man River, at least in its present form.
A land-use study of the park will get under way next week with public hearings March 23rd and 24th. The Riverfront Development Corporation and Memphis City Council discussed Mud Island's cost and future in meetings this week. With $30 million Beale Street Landing soon to become the big new thing on the riverfront, the council may be reluctant to spend much money on Mud Island, except for a new playground.
"Indeed, Mud Island River Park is unique and special, but an entertainment and amusement facility it isn't," wrote RDC president Benny Lendermon in a letter to City Council chairman Myron Lowery last week.
When it opened, after nearly a decade of planning and at a cost of some $60 million, Mud Island supposedly drew a million visitors in its first year. If so, that included thousands of school children hauled over to see it on field trips. There were three restaurants, a popular outdoor amphitheater, a monorail, the river model and museum, and gorgeous river views.
But there were critics, too, like then-councilman J.O. Patterson Jr., who favored a theme park and predicted, correctly, that a park based on history would not attract crowds year after year. A newspaper columnist named Paul Turner put in words what many Memphians were thinking: After one visit, why would you go back? There was no bridge to Mud Island for five more years, and there is still no pedestrian bridge from Beale Street or the cobblestones. And the name "Mud" became something of a joke despite the creative efforts of advertising man John Malmo.
Pyramid promoter Sidney Shlenker took it over for a couple of years in the 1990s, opening the river model to swimming and tearing down a playground at the north edge of the park for no good reason. The RDC has managed and promoted it since 2001 and eliminated park admission fees, brought back the concerts, and done an exemplary job of landscaping. Tbe flowering shrubs and hardwood trees have matured, and the park is shadier, prettier, cheaper, more user-friendly, and easier to get to than it was when it opened. One of the coolest ways to see it is by bicycle, either by pumping over the steep Auction Street Bridge or via the sidewalk above the monorail and then down the elevator.
But Mud Island River Park has lost its niche as well as its charm in 27 years. Tom Lee Park was expanded and is being expanded again for Beale Street Landing. Confederate Park on Front Street will get more attention when the University of Memphis law school moves into the old Customs House. The Greenbelt Park across from Harbor Town is the choice of most dog-walkers, joggers, walkers, boaters, and bikers — and it doesn't close in fall and winter. The cobblestones sidewalk is closer. The bluff walk has better views. Soulsville and the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum next to FedExForum have better music exhibits. Overton Park's shell has free concerts. Shelby Farms is undergoing a multi-million dollar upgrade. Tunica has a newer river museum. And if Lendermon and the RDC catch a break and the economy turns around, Beale Street Landing could eventually have a real riverboat to go with the model in the Mud Island River Park museum.
So it's the right time to rethink Mud Island River Park. Compromise should be one of the guiding principles.
It goes against the grain of the RDC, which tends to overspend on big projects and consultants, but inexpensive, common-sense improvements to Mud Island River Park — a playground and more accessible boat ramp, for example — could maintain or slightly increase its 165,000 annual visitors.
And it goes against the grain of Friends for Our Riverfront, which tends to look askance at the RDC and anything that reduces parkland, but taxpayers can't afford to maintain all these parks — from the riverfront to the other 300 square miles of Memphis.
If a hotel operator or developer can be found, it's time to take a hard look at putting a commercial property on Mud Island. Somebody has to pay for all these public improvements, and with the land bridge off the table and the Front Street promenade apparently tied up in court indefinitely, the most obvious candidate is on the west side of the harbor.