On Tuesday, seven members of the Memphis City Council did their version of a Tom Lee reenactment, saving the Riverfront Development Corporation, aka the Retired Directors Club, which will now spend $29.4 million at Tom Lee Park so people can get close enough to the Mississippi River to drown in it.
No word yet on whether there will be a monument to "the very worthy councilmen" to go with the one to "the very worthy" Tom Lee.
The RDC should be careful what it wishes for. Beale Street Landing, a glorified boat dock, will apparently let visitors get close enough to scoop up a handful of water or dangle a toe in Big Muddy. At a time when homeowners, parks, and colleges are taking down the diving boards at their swimming pools to save on insurance costs, Memphis is going to put some floating concrete lily pads out in the river. How long will it be before some child or Memphis In May party animal slips through the rails and plunges into the Mississippi River and drowns or slaps the city with a lawsuit? And if it costs $20 million to bring Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium into ADA compliance, how much will it cost to make B.S. Landing safe for boatloads of senior citizens and their walkers?
Come back, Tom Lee, and bring your boat with you.
Politically, at least, B.S. Landing is unsinkable. It survived the elimination of the land bridge, the decision of Delta Steamboat Company to shun Memphis in its corporate relocation, public apathy (the only person to speak for it Tuesday was RDC President Benny Lendermon) and various design revisions. Several people let's say at least 32 of them -- came to the council meeting Tuesday to oppose it, but although their spokespersons were sensible and even eloquent, they might as well have been trying to dam the river.
"My job is to recruit bright young people to work in Memphis," said Susan Caldwell. "I can unequivocally say that not one of them is making a decision on where to live based on a new commercial boat dock . . . I ask you to consider: What real community needs and future needs will be cut in order to build this project? What maintenance will be ignored? What libraries and parks will be closed?"
Nice try, but no sale. Only Carol Chumney, Jack Sammons, and E. C. Jones voted to remove B.S. Landing from the capital improvements budget. There are at least four reasons why the project is alive.
First, it gets about $10 million in state and federal money, which in the minds of some council members offsets the $19 million in local money -- even though $19 million is six times the amount the council is going to give LeMoyne Owen College.
Second, the politically savvy and well-heeled RDC played smart and got the project through as part of the riverfront master plan when it was in its infancy, then told council members they had already approved it on subsequent votes, even though the design, cost, and rationales had changed.
Third, fiscal restraint takes a back seat to a juicy public project every time to a majority of local politicians at crunch time. There are simply too many perks, contracts, and jobs to divvy up and too many political IOUs to hand out or call in. Reports of Mayor Willie Herenton's political demise are greatly exaggerated. The seven yes votes for the RDC included potential mayoral rivals Tom Marshall and Myron Lowery, who fell docilely in line behind the mayor; Scott McCormick, who got Rickey Peetes seat on the RDC board after Peete was indicted for bribery; Edmund Ford, previously cast as the black-hatted villain in the MLGW Follies; and Dedrick Brittenum, who is quitting the council after this term is up.
Finally, "green" is white. When black members of the City Council looked out at the audience of RDC opponents, they didnt see many, if any, people who looked like them. The failure of B.S. Landing to make a bridge to Mud Island will be a problem, but the failure of environmental groups with their smart growth, coffee shops, and bike paths to bridge the racial divide will be a bigger one..