Friday, June 22, 2012

A Darn Good Week for Downtown

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2012 at 3:17 PM

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Wow. First the Harahan Bridge Project funding announcement Tuesday, then the Bass Pro Pyramid media event Thursday. Two projects that bookend a third project, Beale Street Landing and the steamboats, that is also changing the face of the riverfront. Over $300 million in public and private investment by my math. And a successful relaunch of the Outdoors Inc. Canoe and Kayak Race last Saturday.

At the Bass Pro deal, someone collared me to say "nanny nah-nah" in reference to some skepticism I expressed over the years, and someone else grabbed me to say how much she likes Bass Pro but the only problem is their clothes hardly ever wear out. A third person came over to reminisce about the Pyramid groundbreaking or "Big Dig" we both witnessed in 1989. It seems like it was only 20 years ago.

Sturdy footwear and garments, along with ammo and camo and Tracker boats and fishing rods and bait and stuffed animals and zip lines and big ole trees in a swamp and live demonstrations and restaurants serving fried catfish and hushpuppies. As the King and the Duke say of their tomfoolery in "Huckleberry Finn," if that don't fetch 'em then I don't know Arkansaw. Or Tennessee either.

Except that Bass Pro is putting another store in Little Rock at about the same time. The apologists who say no big deal are kidding themselves. I'll drop at least a couple hundred bucks a year at Bass Pro Pyramid and take every visitor there for the rest of my Memphis life. But that 4 million visitors estimate sounds high with so many outlets within 220 miles. I like the band of glass on the exterior of the building but was surprised to see such a major change in the renderings at such a late date in this deal that has been in the talking stages if not the doing stages for seven years. And the fate of the observation deck is still unknown. Sounds like someone hasn't decided where to spend those funds yet.

The $30 million Harahan Bridge Project, also known as "Main Street to Main Street" is a classic example of politics and creative draftsmanship. Get some repairs done on the mall in Memphis and on Broadway in West Memphis and a very cool but expensive bike and pedestrian bridge paid for in part with federal transportation and stimulus funds. As Bill Dries of the Daily News pointed out, Whitehaven and Graceland got screwed, if you will, on the TIGER funds allotment. Hats off to Charlie McVean, the driving force behind the bike deal. Others have talked and written about it for at least 40 years, but McVean, nothing if not determined, got it done. I agree that every able-bodied soul in this area with a bike will want to do it at least once.

And "once" may be the operative word. It's no greenline, people. While you're waiting for the completion of the Harahan Project, which is a couple years away, here are two things to try: bike to Mud Island park on the walkway above the monorail, envisioned as a dramatic sky train 30 years ago. And, for the adventurous, drive to Crump Park next to the National Ornamental Metals Museum, park your car, jump on your bike or put on your Bass Pro sturdy boots, and climb the embankment to the narrow walkway on the south side of the Interstate 55 bridge just south of the Harahan. There is absolutely nothing stopping you. Step out on it and head for "the other side of the river" which can be as much as a mile or more away depending on the river level. You can hear the roar and feel the wind as trucks speed past so close you could reach out and touch them.

It shakes. It shakes a lot. There is a 30-inch concrete wall on one side and a 40-inch railing on the other side. Scary. And hot on a day like today. Nice view, and about the same one you can get from Martyr's Park or the metals museum. I know there will be all sorts of safety features on the Harahan bike and pedestrian walkway, but that's the point. This stuff is expensive. It takes maintenance. I can't remember a day in the last few years when I did not see workmen working on the pilings under the interstate ramps near Riverside Drive and the Pyramid. I wonder how many people have thought this through.

Once it is completed, I hope the Harahan path connects to the levee in Arkansas and a true bike trail on the Tennessee side to make a national destination worthy of attention from Adventure Cycling Association, this Missoula, Montana outfit.

The key to both deals (and Beale Street Landing), says downtown visionary Henry Turley, is leveraging them into lasting broad benefits to downtown and Memphis in general. The Downtown Memphis Commission and the Riverfront Development Corporation have their charge. Whatever mistakes they may have made in the past don't matter now. That was yesterday, we move on. We bought it, we got it. Now get the cobblestones done, figure out Front Street and Memphis in May and Mud Island Park and the Pinch. Then we'll really have something to celebrate. We better do this, because a bike bridge, a boat dock, steamboat cruises for $3000, and tax money for a retailer sure doesn't sound like government belt-tightening or a city and a country supposedly in the throes of a great recession.

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