Flying into Memphis International Airport has always been akin to entering a big warehouse. Which is fitting, perhaps, since it's been the number-one cargo airport in the world since 1992. But, in an attempt to create a more Memphis experience, the airport recently underwent $25 million in improvements, including the addition of area-themed restaurants and shops. After a media tour that included both an Elvis and a panda impersonator, the Flyer spoke with Richard White, director of properties for the Shelby County Airport Authority, about the project and the possible dangers of combining international travel with Interstate BBQ. -- by Ben Popper
Flyer: The entertainment was terrific. Will there be Elvis and pandas on a regular basis?
White: No, but there will be live entertainment in Rhythms [restaurant], in Sun Studio, and in the Blue Note Café when that opens. And on special occasions there will be live entertainment and pandas and all that stuff. We feel that the Mid-South/Memphis theme has a flavor that is unique to us. We want anyone who comes to the airport to feel our hospitality.
How long has this project been in the works?
We started the planning on this in 2000. When 9/11 occurred, we basically delayed the process for a year, both for reasons of security and because traffic, as at all airports, dropped off significantly.
A lot of airports try for a grand, sweeping style, whereas this feels very personal.
We surveyed all the passengers who frequent our airport to see what they wanted. In the old airport, when you used to get off the plane, there was no sense of where you were. We felt Memphis had a very attractive uniqueness about it, and we wanted to highlight that.
How did the airport pay for this?
All the money that was spent in here is being paid by the concessionaires. We use something called minimum annual recovery, which is a rate that it costs the airport to produce the piece of real estate, the capital component to construct it and to maintain it, plus the utility rate.
Is the focus supposed to be the central rotunda?
That is the biggest piece of it. Eighty percent of our traffic goes through that area, but we have over 51 restaurants and retail spaces throughout the building. There are little touches as well, such as paintings by local artists and the hanging graphic panels that relate to Memphis.
We have to ask: How do you feel about boarding passengers who have just had a hearty helping of BBQ?
Why not? In Boston, you are going to get a cup of clam chowder. In El Paso, you will probably get a helping of Tex-Mex cuisine.
So, you're not worried about any significant increases in cabin pressure?