Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Owed to West Memphis

The view from the other side of the future cross-river bike trail.

Posted by on Wed, Jun 27, 2012 at 2:09 PM

Nobody ever calls it our sister city, but the town on the other side of the river is a vital link in the "Main Street to Main Street" project connecting Memphis and West Memphis by a bicycle and pedestrian pathway on the Harahan Bridge.

The "Main Street" over there is actually Broadway Avenue, home (still) of Pancho's Mexican restaurant and (half a century ago) a dancing and watering hole called the Plantation Inn in better days. Younger Memphians know it as the hometown of former Tiger basketball star Keith Lee, the West Memphis Three, and a shootout that took the lives of two police officers in 2010. Not exactly fodder for historical markers and destination tourism.

The eastern end of Broadway, where the bike path will connect, is forlorn these days. You can walk or bike across the river now on a narrow sidewalk next to the Interstate 55 bridge just south of the Harahan, but it's a pretty long haul on a hot day and not recommended or promoted by anyone on either side.

And when you get there, what then? There are no bike shops in West Memphis, unless you count Wal-Mart, and no trendy cafes, unless you count McDonald's. There is, however, a car racetrack (Riverside Speedway) and a dog track (Southland Park). The plan is to connect the bike trail to the levee and go south to Horseshoe Lake, about a 25-minute ride from downtown Memphis. That would bypass downtown West Memphis and require the cooperation of the Levee Board. Arkansas state senator Keith Ingram, who was mayor of West Memphis from 1987-1995, is optimistic.

"We don't have to look very far back to see the importance of the levee," said Ingram, recalling the historic flood of 2011. "Because of the levee, we have not been able to use our river view as Memphis has. But hopefully, we can work with the Levee Board on this."

Lost in the local news last week was the fact that West Memphis, with the help of Ingram and U.S. senator Mark Pryor, got a second federal grant for $10.9 million to run a rail line to its port. The total take for West Memphis last week from the two federal grants: $26 million.

"It's been a great week to be in Shelby County and Crittenden County," said Ingram, who also worked with Memphis businessman and bicycle bridge backer Charlie McVean to get the cooperation of the Union Pacific Railroad to use the Harahan.

Trains will continue to cross the river on the Harahan, making the bike/pedestrian trail more exciting and adventurous than the pedestrian bridges in Nashville and Chattanooga.

"It will be a must-see, must-do, at least one-time attraction for everyone who lives in this area," predicted Abbott Widdecombe, owner of Tom Sawyer's R.V. Park on the river in West Memphis.

In Memphis, the project is being hyped for its benefits to South Main Street as well as bicycle tourism. Street improvements will be made along the trolley line, in front of the Chisca Hotel which is slated for renovation, and south of the train station where there will be a connection to the bridge.

If you had told me 10 or 20 years ago that Memphis would reinvent itself as a bicycle town I'd have thought you were touched. But last year Outside magazine put Chattanooga — a city once scorned as "America's dirtiest city" just as Memphis was dubbed "a Southern backwater — on its cover and called the river city "best town ever" because of its rock-climbing, hang-gliding, rafting, and bike riding. Never underestimate the power of social media, extreme sports, and creative marketing to attract the coveted creative class. And in The Wall Street Journal this week, an article by Thomas Campanella on New Yorker Robert Moses makes the case that the famous city planner was "a keen advocate of bicycling and built New York City's first true bicycle infrastructure" in the 1930s, including 50 miles of paved paths exclusively for bike riders.

It helped, the author says, that the Depression created a bike sales boom because people could no longer afford cars.

In our day and our town, the driving force is green. Green as in big money from the government and philanthropists and green as in environmentally friendly. It's too early to declare a bicycle boom, but in a couple of years you'll be able to walk and bike to West Memphis — and to the sights and sounds of Broadway.

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