Flowing Pains 

New Plans for Tom Lee Park spark concern for Memphis in May.

A hotel industry leader said he was "deeply concerned" a redesigned Tom Lee Park could negatively impact the Memphis in May (MIM) festival last week, but a riverfront leader said the events will fit and prosper in the new park.

Mississippi River Parks Partnership (MRPP) unveiled its design for the park two weeks ago. That plan adds contours, trees, facilities, and more to the now-wide-open Tom Lee Park.

click to enlarge Tom Lee Park model at Beale Street Landing. - BRUCE VANWYNGARDEN
  • Bruce VanWyngarden
  • Tom Lee Park model at Beale Street Landing.

Wayne Tabor, president and CEO of the Memphis Metropolitan Hotel and Lodging Association, said in a recent letter to Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, that he was told the redesign would reduce festival capacity and attendance. He said this would "reduce the festival's ability to generate revenue, tourists, room night sales and would reduce the economic impact of the festival."

"This concerns us because the month of May has consistently been one of the highest hotel occupancy months of the year and one of the largest sales revenue months for Downtown restaurants," Tabor said in the letter.

However, MRPP president and CEO Carol Coletta, said her team has spent two years and $100,000 focused on the ongoing success of the festival at Tom Lee Park. The design, she said, has been informed by attendance figures, logistical needs, and event-staging preferences from MIM. The festivals, she said, fit into the redesigned Tom Lee Park.

The three large fields now present in the plan, for example, were created and sized to handle the three main stages and the ever-swelling crowds for Beale Street Music Festival, Coletta said. Maps drawn up by Studio Gang, the Chicago-based design firm behind Tom Lee Park's new look, show enough space around the stages to handle the capacity and add more.

Tabor said Memphis in May would have to be moved next year during the park's renovation, and revenues lost because of it "could never be recuperated."

Construction of the new park is expected to take 18 months and begin right after MIM this year. So, under this schedule, the park would be under construction for the festival next year.

Coletta said hosting the festival in Tom Lee Park next year is not off the table. But, as MIM requires the entire park for the festival's production, she said she was unclear if it would work. She said the Downtown Memphis Commission is now identifying other locations Downtown for the festival in 2020.

Tabor said he was also concerned the new park would reconfigure the tent siting for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, moving many tents to Riverside Drive. Doing so would make it "just like any other competition around the country — Chicago, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis."

Studio Gang's configurations show some tents moved to the street, but the majority will still be located in the park, on those large, grassy fields designed for the music-festival stages. All of the tents fit in the space, according to the configurations, with capacity for about 40 more. However, Coletta said the final design for barbecue will be strictly up to MIM.

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