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Water World

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"Everything I've heard from users is that they want a way for the riverfront parks to connect with each other and with the city. We need to extend the walkways," says one representative of a riverfront group.

"That little walkway that goes behind the [River Tower] wasn't a huge project, but those connections are important to tie everything together," says another.

Both representatives talk about ways to get more people to Memphis' riverfront and bring it to life, with places to sit, places to eat, places to shop, and places to ride a bike or paddle a canoe.

But that is perhaps where the similarities end. One representative is Benny Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), a quasi-governmental agency in charge of maintaining and improving the riverfront. The other is Virginia McLean, president of Friends for Our Riverfront (FfOR), a grassroots organization started in response to the RDC's master plan.

Two weeks ago, a City Council committee removed funding for the RDC's Beale Street Landing project from the city's upcoming capital improvement budget. Days later, the $29 million project, which includes a floating boat dock designed to look like the neck of a guitar, was back in the budget. Though it hasn't been officially approved at the time of this writing, I foresee the project going forward.

"It's a stand-alone project, but it ties Tom Lee Park, Beale Street, and the cobblestones together," says Lendermon. "The Beale Street Landing is hugely important. We're about to lose our connection to the water. ... You can't get to the water's edge."

The RDC expects that commercial boat traffic will increase dramatically with the new dock, both from local daily excursions and Mississippi River tour boats. Depending on availability of space, private boaters would also be able to tie watercraft at the landing.

Currently, the daily excursion and tour boats dock on the cobblestones. Lendermon says the Beale Street Landing project will allow the RDC to restore the historic cobblestones because the "existing boat operations hamper that ability" now.

FfOR's McLean is also interested in maintaining the cobblestones but without the landing.

"Is this going to be a place that people are going to love and use?" she asks. "Instead of building a new facility, why don't we improve what we already have?

"I really believe we could make the cobblestones a great public landing for less money."

Like Lendermon and McLean, I would love to see the riverfront teem with people. Does it have to be as complicated as the RDC makes it out to be? The river fluctuates an average of 57 feet a year; maybe a floating dock is the best way to get people close to the water.

For the Beale Street Landing to avoid becoming a boondoggle, as Councilwoman Carol Chumney described it, it needs to do two things: get people down to the water's edge and give them something to do once they are there.

Call it the Jeff Buckley syndrome, but people are drawn to the water. They might think it's gross, they might think it's unsafe, but they still want to touch it. I've canoed it before and, for about 17 seconds last February, I waded in it. But it's not something people can do easily.

Right now, the main uses of the riverfront are walking and gazing. The view is amazing. But, after a while, it's also kind of ... boring. Looking at the Mississippi is not like watching the ocean or a harbor full of sailboats. The Beale Street Landing needs to do more than give people a $29 million dock to look at the river.

It's been said that the riverfront needs a place to get a drink, but it also needs, for lack of a better word, stuff. It needs something kids will love, like sculptures they can climb or a place they can play. (I know Mud Island has that, but it's an island.) It needs things to see.

Two simple ideas that McLean mentioned were a water garden off the cobblestones and vending machines of fish food. I don't know the mechanics of a water garden, but I don't think a garden is ever a bad idea. (Just an aside, if we're talking water gardens, can someone look into doing one in Overton Park? I've seen less disgusting water in open sewers.)

The fish food idea is even more interesting to me. Feeding the fish would be something inexpensive that families could enjoy. Only, for it to be really effective, people have to be able to get close enough to the water to see the fish they're feeding.

Like I said, I don't know the answer. But in the end, $29 million or not, we're all in the same boat.

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