Memphis Deserves a River Park Plan That Meets Festival Demands

Let me begin by admitting my bias. I have been a Memphis in May International Festival fan and event attendee all of my adult life. Like many of us, the Festival is as embedded in my experience of being a Memphian as is the mighty river itself. 

I remember heading down to Tom Lee Park for the Beale Street Music Festival with a gaggle of girlfriends, to witness acts like John Prine, Blues Traveler, Keb Mo, Fleetwood Mac, and Willie Nelson serenade the majestic Mississippi River, and all of us. Each year we would wait with great anticipation for the line-up announcement, grab a program and, using a highlighter, we’d indicate which stages we would need to be in front of and at what times. We’d enjoy three days of a variety of music, some acts we knew well and some for whom we’d get our first experience at seeing live. The sights and sounds were like nothing I had ever witnessed before and in your twenties, just starting a career, the tickets were very affordable for a full weekend of music. Each night we’d top off the evening with a Pronto Pup. Slather it with loads of mustard, never caring that most of it ended up on our chins and cheeks. I am 50 years old now and in 25 years I have rarely missed the Beale Street Music Festival. As I have aged the acts have changed, but I always find something new to add to the rotation in my playlist. That’s the great thing about “Music Fest.” It can make you feel young again. 

On left, Francisco Santos Calderon, former Vice President of Columbia plays cornhole with Kathy’s cousin, Father Michael Werkhoven of Memphis.

Days later, we’d prepare for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, affectionately known as “BBQ Fest”. We’d gather the booth numbers where our longtime friends would be stationed, secure our wrist bands just so and head downtown where the sweet smell of roasted pig and sauce would grab hold on Union Avenue, well before we entered the gates. Now, with BBQ Alley, visitors can partake in the yummy goodness without ever entering a booth.  Anyone who has witnessed the setting sun over the Mississippi River and into the flatlands of Arkansas from BBQ Fest can attest that it is an experience to be remembered for a lifetime. 

Ten years ago I decided to involve myself more deeply with the festival by volunteering as a tour guide during International Week. While the Festival’s mainstay events of Music Fest and BBQ Fest garner much attention, one of the primary components of Memphis in May is its International Program. In my role as a guide, I have been privileged to accompany a convoy of dignitaries from the Festival’s honored country each year. We expose these visitors from countries afar to all of our city’s amazing museums and tourism spots, enabling these dignitaries to become champions of Memphis when they return home.  Each year, Memphis in May curates artists, chefs, musicians, dancers and exhibits from the honored country, which are put on display throughout the city. These exhibits are folded into a curriculum provided to our city’s school system. International Week culminates with a free cultural live performance for these children from the celebrated country at the Orpheum. Also during International Week, a speaker series is held where our city’s business and industry leaders exchange ideas and make connections with leaders from the honored country. This is how Memphis in May’s mission of promoting and celebrating Memphis culture and enhancing international awareness comes to fruition.

On left, Cultural Counselor Kristina Rennerstedt of the Embassy of Sweden with Kathy atop the Peabody Hotel at sunset during International Week.

Now, after 42 years of providing Memphians and visitors from around the world with an experience like no other, Memphis in May is facing its first serious threat to its viability in Tom Lee Park. The recently released plans of the Tom Lee Park redesign by Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP) did not adequately consider the needs of the Festival, and if a compromise is not reached, our city’s flagship festival may be in jeopardy. It is important to acknowledge that Memphis in May, while receiving no direct funding from taxpayers, impacts our economy to the tune of roughly $130 million a year. Last year, Beale Street Music Festival alone was a sell-out with more than 102,000 attendees from all 50 states and 22 foreign countries. The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest touted more than 225 teams from 23 states and 5 foreign countries. According to hotel industry consultant Chuck Pinkowski with Pinkowski & Company, the 2018 Average Daily Rate for downtown hotels, which is based on demand, was roughly 15% higher in May than it was for the rest of the year.

I think it is time that we face the harsh realization that if MRPP is unable to compromise and make the necessary modifications to their existing plan to accommodate Memphis in May, our Festival will be irreversibly harmed. Downtown small businesses will be negatively impacted. Our museums, hotels and restaurants will take a serious hit. Yes, Memphis in May is held for one month a year in the park. But I would argue that those are the most important 30 days in Memphis, from an economic standpoint. There is no reason MRPP can’t deliver a plan that meets both the needs of Memphis in May and the daily users of Tom Lee Park. These two things are not at odds with each other. It is my firm belief that the people of Memphis deserve a plan from MRPP that meets the needs of Memphis in May while also delivering on their promise of a modern park. In fact, we should demand it.

Kathy Edmundson-Ferguson is a lifelong Memphian and a former marketing and advertising executive. She has served in leadership positions on several non-profit boards and is actively involved with many charities. Now a full-time mother and homemaker, she and her family reside in Midtown.

Feature image courtesy of memphisinmay.org

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