Realpolitik and the River 

In five weeks, more or less, Memphians will be voting for a mayor and city council. The three most recognizable mayoral candidates are the incumbent, Jim Strickland, longtime former Mayor Willie Herenton, and activist and County Commissioner Tami Sawyer.

Strickland touts the city's "momentum" and its surging economic developments. Herenton wants Memphis to "do it again" and send him back to the office he held for several terms during the 1990s and early 2000s. Sawyer, perhaps best-known for her "Take'EmDown901" campaign to remove the city's Confederate statuary, is raising hell, poking at Strickland's record, trying to elevate her profile.

A debate between the three of them would be an interesting exercise in democracy and would give the public a chance to see how the candidates handle themselves in the heat of the moment and where the fissures between them exist.

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But it doesn't appear it's going to occur. Herenton was the first to opt out of a scheduled debate sponsored by The Commercial Appeal and WMC-Channel 5. Strickland then withdrew, saying, via a spokesperson, "without the top challenger in the race participating, an informed and balanced debate could not happen." Sawyer responded as you might expect: "Mayor Strickland and Herenton are denying taxpayers the right to hear where we all stand on the issues and make an informed choice on who will lead our city over the next [four] years."

Sawyer is correct, but she's battling realpolitik. Neither Herenton nor Strickland perceive that they have anything to gain from a debate (see Politics), so any opportunity to avoid such an event will be taken. And that's too bad because there are a number of issues that could stand a public airing, including the ongoing battle between Memphis in May and the proponents of the redesign of Tom Lee Park by the Memphis River Parks Partnership.

Last week, Memphis in May issued its report on the 2019 festival, citing a month-long economic impact of festival events totaling $149,112,480. MIM also cited tax revenues for the city at $4.6 million and an attendance of 107,153. Impressive stats, no doubt. Well done, Jim Holt and crew.

A couple days later, a group representing 70 Downtown businesses released a letter they had written to Strickland in June, citing their support for the MRPP redesign: "We believe a revitalized Riverfront, and in particular, the effort to build a bold new Tom Lee Park, is critical to maintaining and capitalizing on [the city's economic] momentum, and we believe the time to make that happen is now." Straightforward enough. A simple statement of support.

In response, Amy Howell, a spokesperson for a group called Get Our Riverfront Right and MIM, issued the following statement to the Daily Memphian: "While the taxpayer funded RDC/MRPP may not be competent is [sic] running our park system, they are good at PR and swaying public opinion to fit their agenda(s). Our group of volunteer tax paying citizens comprised of a diverse group of well intentioned Memphians have [sic] amassed almost 7,000 signatures against what RDC/MRPP has planned for Tom Lee Park as well as letters from the MRA and Hotel/Motel Association. We know there have [sic] been no operational strategy, budgeting and plan to maintain our park system."

Grammar aside, the attacks on MRPP staff and their motives by Howell and various ad hoc social-media groups have often been clumsy and mean-spirited. And frankly, pointless. I have news for MIM and those who want Memphis to "leave Tom Lee alone." Tom Lee Park is going to get a redesign, though it may be modified to some degree. Mediation is ongoing, though I don't believe any decision will be made public until — wait for it — after the mayoral election. Rather than publicly assaulting the integrity of the other side (and dozens of Downtown business owners), it might behoove Howell and MIM to tone down the public rhetoric and continue to quietly work together to create a park that will accommodate the MIM events, even if it means some adjustments must be made.

In a world where the Amazon is burning and climate change is uppermost on the minds of serious world leaders, opposing the planting of trees and the installation of water features and a shelter in a treeless, blazing-hot public park is a bad look. Trashing the integrity of fellow Memphians who support creating a new riverfront is a bad look. Nobody wants Memphis in May to go away. The city welcomes the friendly May invasion of barbecuers and music lovers from around the world. But we also want to welcome tourists and locals to the river the rest of the year.

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