Fishing for Funding 

The city should finish the controversial Beale Street Landing and then cut the RDC loose.

As far as landings go, the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) hasn't exactly nailed the one at the foot of Beale Street.

The project is two years behind schedule and several million dollars over budget. The boat companies it was designed to serve are gone. And now, with the city facing a financial tight spot, the Wharton administration plans to allocate only $1 million for the Beale Street Landing in the upcoming fiscal year's budget.

With funding from the city and some leftover operating money, the RDC should be able to complete improvements along Riverside Drive and a 10,000-square-foot building that will house a restaurant, gift shop, and restroom facilities. But they will need at least another $7 million for the final phase of a project, a park going down to the water's edge.

"I wish it wasn't as critical as it is," says RDC president Benny Lendermon. He says they would have done everything differently if the project wasn't going to include the park.

"The park feature was designed first. [It's] the centerpiece," Lendermon says. "If you don't build that, you can dock boats there; you can have the building; but it's not anything like what was originally envisioned. We'll be directing everyone's attention to a moonscape."

The RDC was created in 2000 to connect the city to the Mississippi River and to create a world-class riverfront. But the public/private partnership also was created, in part, to leverage private funding for the area. If the city holds firm on its funding, the Beale Street Landing may be the test of how well the RDC meets that goal.

In years past, the main funding body of the RDC was the city of Memphis. In 2003, for instance, a time when the RDC got commitments of more than $500,000 from private grants and foundations, the city's portion of operating costs was more than $3 million. The city also provided about $2.25 million for capital projects such as Martyr's Park and the cobblestone walkway that year. Park operations netted the RDC about $1.3 million in revenue.

Lendermon says they've gotten about $5 million from private sources over the lifetime of the RDC. By comparison, the organization has received more than $32 million from the city for operating costs and about $20 million from government sources in capital funding.

Which might make it sound like raising $7 million for one project would be difficult, especially in a down economy. But Lendermon notes that though the RDC has received private grants and foundation money for operating costs, they've never tried to do a capital campaign.

"The things we've done, like improvements to Riverside Drive ... who's going to contribute to that? It's a city function," he says.

Lendermon says they're exploring the idea of a capital campaign, but they need to see what direction the city wants to go.

The RDC has been controversial ever since it was created. Roughly half of its operating expenses each year go to salaries, wages, and benefits. In 2009, while professional services and landscaping cost $207,000 and maintenance, materials, and supplies came in at $538,000, personnel costs were $2.3 million. Though the RDC keeps the riverside parks in great condition, couldn't the city's parks division do just as good a job?

As the former director of public works for the city, Lendermon says the RDC's advantage over the parks department is "believe it or not, speed."

"When the traffic circle on Mud Island was done, the city came to us because they knew if they had to build it and construct it, it would take a year longer," he says. "Part of it is the contractual requirements they have. If they want to buy a pick-up truck, it takes them nine months. It takes us two days."

Despite what some people may think of the RDC, not finishing the Beale Street Landing as planned will leave a large and ugly reminder of local government's failings. Wouldn't it be better to finish the Beale Street Landing and then, if people still feel similarly, fire the RDC?

Under the best-case scenario, the Beale Street Landing should be completed by the end of 2011. The RDC's second five-year contract with the city is also up in 2011.

Once the Beale Street Landing, ostensibly the crown jewel of the RDC's plan for a world-class riverfront, is completed, there's no reason for the city not to bring the riverfront parks back in-house. The city may not be able to do construction as quickly, but the parks department knows how to cut grass.

"This isn't our project," Lendermon says of the Beale Street Landing. "This is the city's project. We're managing it for them. We don't own it. ... We're under contract with them."

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