We spend years asking experts how to make our riverfront better. Then we spend more years arguing about it and millions of dollars building something. Meanwhile, the tourists go somewhere else, a recession hits, riverboat companies go out of business, and the concerts and teams move to FedExForum or Tunica.
That's been the formula at Tom Lee Park, which is getting a $33 million Beale Street Landing; the Pyramid, which is being given to Bass Pro Shops, along with $35 million; the cobblestones, slated for $7 million; and Mud Island River Park, where the makeover might include a skate park, carousel, and/or aquarium.
But one of the most popular riverfront attractions in Memphis is also the most economical. Greenbelt Park on Mud Island is a mile-long swath of green grass and cottonwood trees. Its featured attraction is the Mississippi River, now covering about half of the park's acreage. Unlike Beale Street Landing, Greenbelt Park's only capital improvements are a lighted sidewalk and a small plaza with a water fountain, bike rack, bench, and a piece of outdoor art. The only structure is a purple martin house, which is low-maintenance. The bright idea was cutting down some trees that blocked the view.
How does this park get it right? Let me count the ways.
Touch the water. The Riverfront Development Corporation says Beale Street Landing will provide a "touch the water" experience, but visitors to Greenbelt Park can already do that, even though most of them seem to prefer to just look at it. In the movie Atlantic City, an old man played by Burt Lancaster laments that the ocean isn't what it used to be. But the river really isn't what it used to be — ever. Not two months ago, before the Arkansas fields flooded, or two months from now, when barges will be navigating around exposed dikes and sandbars.
Accessibility. Free parking in three lots. No admission charge, ever. BYO food and drink, but there is a pizza parlor, grocery store, deli, and restaurant within walking distance.
It never closes. Put up a nice building and pretty soon you have a staff, an entrance gate, operating hours, concession stands that have to charge high prices to survive, an off-season, and debt. Welcome to $63 million Mud Island River Park, closed from November to April. Tom Lee Park is taken over by Memphis in May and out of commission for part of April and June too. How Beale Street Landing will co-exist with Memphis in May remains to be seen.
People and pet-friendly. Greenbelt Park is a melting pot, due to its proximity to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Harbor Town. It has more pets, kite flyers, bikers, kids, runners, and baby strollers per acre than any downtown park.
Cheap thrills. Local outdoorsman Joe Royer's annual canoe/kayak race and Cyclocross bike race are held on or next to Greenbelt Park. They entertain and market Memphis by using what's already there, with no capital improvements budget. The running track is a trail, now under water. Hardcores use the sidewalks on the Auction Street Bridge. Boaters use the north ramp.
So much potential: a splash park in Tom Lee Park; Ultimate Frisbee in Greenbelt Park; a cleaner harbor; a playground on Mud Island River Park; skating in the Pyramid parking lot; a five-park bike ride. All at a fraction of the cost of Beale Street Landing.