Not an Easy River

Past troubles aside, investment on the river is at flood stage.


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Memphis loves its river. Or does it?

Just as the level of the Mississippi River on the Memphis gauge rises and falls from the near record 48 feet in 2011 to -10.7 feet in 1988, so do investment and interest in tourism and recreation along the river. This year, we're well above flood stage and approaching a record.

At the $42 million Beale Street Landing, the American Queen, which is being christened Friday, is bringing back overnight steamboat trips. A new restaurant at the landing will offer the river views that have been missing since the Pier and Landry's closed. Memphis in May is bringing the barbecue contest back to the river after the 2011 flood forced it to relocate to Tiger Lane at the fairgrounds. In June, Joe Royer is bringing back the Outdoors Inc. Canoe and Kayak Race after a two-year absence. Bass Pro Shops is turning the Pyramid into a retail store and indoor swamp. And the Harahan Bridge Project will create a bike trail across the river.

Taken all together, the public and private investment in riverfront projects coming on line this year and next is well over $250 million.

But the excitement is tempered by experience — the delays and cost overruns at Beale Street Landing, the slow pace and high cost in public incentives of Bass Pro, the uncertain funding for the Harahan Project, and the barren landscape of Tom Lee Park after Memphis in May.

The Front Street public promenade, a gift to the city from its founders, is still dominated by parking garages. Mud Island River Park, which came out of hibernation this month, is 30 years old and nearly deserted on weekdays. The cobblestone landing next to Riverside Drive remains a stepchild of Beale Street Landing — mostly talk and no action. The unfinished Horizon high-rise on the South Bluff is a monument to bad investing, bad architecture, and bad planning.

"I don't have an easy river to work with," Royer told me while he explained why he pushed back the date of the canoe and kayak race. And that goes for anyone who tries to do something on or along the river. It's like the heroine in a noir movie or novel — beautiful, irresistible, and trouble.

After losing money two years in a row, Royer said he was ready to call it quits last year. The paddling scene, such as it is in Shelby County, had moved out east to Shelby Farms and the Wolf River. But a canoe or kayak on man-made Patriot Lake is a pretty ordinary picture compared to a flotilla of them coming down the river along Mud Island on a summer morning. The entry: $40. The experience: priceless.

Same goes for the barbecue contest. Diane Hampton, executive director of Memphis in May, said she really liked Tiger Lane last year "but it just wasn't the same as being next to the river." A survey of teams showed a clear majority in favor of coming back to Tom Lee Park, where the contest, the Beale Street Music Fest, and the Sunset Symphony will co-exist with the construction of Beale Street Landing.

Bud Chittom will operate the restaurant at the landing.

"Great cocktails, sunsets, good food, lovely veranda, and the only unobstructed view where you don't smell a paper mill," said Chittom, who was the only one to bid on the contract.

If the Pyramid comes back to life as a Bass Pro superstore, it will be because of the public incentives and the personal determination of Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris, who is calling all of the shots.

And if the Harahan Project comes to fruition, it will be due in large part to the efforts of Aerobic Cruiser hybrid bicycle entrepreneur Charles McVean. The vision goes back to at least 1976, when it was proposed in a Memphis magazine story on "bikommuting" to accommodate the estimated "283,000 admitted pedallers" in Shelby County.

Joe Royer is right. This is not an easy river. The Tennessee River in Chattanooga is easy. You can bike across it, walk across it, float it, build on both of its banks, and permanently dock a steamboat on it. This helped make Chattanooga "best town ever" in Outside magazine's singular estimation last year.

Our river is majestic but hard to work with. It is a photo-op. It is a challenge to our civic vision. We are often reminded how mistaken we would be to turn our backs on it. So we keep on keeping on.

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