Consultants were exploring Mud Island and its future earlier this week and, while the crystal ball may be still dim, officials envision a bright future for the “sleepy” peninsula.
Mud Island was the focus of a Tuesday evening talk hosted by the Mississippi River Parks Partnership (MRPP) at Beale Street Landing. Carol Colletta, the group’s leader, called the Memphis riverfront “six miles of wonder” but said Mud Island “is very sleepy today.”
“Mud Island’s future is very unresolved,” Colletta said, noting it's nearly 40 years old with much deferred maintenance. “What we have is a peninsula sitting in the middle of the Mississippi River. It’s a powerful location with a lot of challenges.”
To wake up the island, Colletta brought in independent advisors to have a look around this week. However, she carefully pointed out that MRPP has not commissioned any formal study or master plan of the island, “we’re just really exploring what might be with some smart people.”
One of those “smart people,” was Leslie Koch, who has a long list of accomplishments in the fund-raising and tech sectors. But Koch’s most translatable skills to Mud Island come with her 10 years of running Governor’s Island, a public park (and more) that sits just off the southern tip of Manhattan Island in New York Harbor.
In 2005, her first year running the island, about 8,000 people visited. In her last year, 2016, about 850,000 visited Governor’s Island. To get there, Koch had to overcome large, unsexy obstacles like drilling a multi-million-dollar pipe under the harbor to deliver drinkable water and finding tenants for 1.4 million square feet in several empty buildings.
But the island grew attendance organically. That is, Koch and her team did not build some blockbuster attraction there. In fact, they once turned down a fully financed SpongeBob SquarePants hotel for the island, she said.
Instead, Koch said she and her team just said “yes” to a lot of ideas from New Yorkers. The strategy brought some great ideas, like the New York City Unicycle Festival. It also brought some bad ideas, like one Koch only referred to as the “Food Truck Cluster Fuck.”
Koch did not offer any firm ideas as to what could be done with Mud Island. But she said Memphians have to decide what they want and move forward.
“You can mourn the loss of the playground over there but you have to move forward,” Koch said in response to a comment. “You can’t rewrite history. You have to decide, what is Memphis today and what do we want to do — as Memphians — in our city.
"A generation of people remember what it was like over there. But I bet there’s a bunch of people in this room who don’t remember.
“You have to decide if the buildings stay or go and decide on what kind of activities go on over there that can honor the reason it was built in the first place.”
Maybe one reason Colletta thought Koch would be a good resource to think about Mud Island is that Governor’s Island was only accessible by boat. Access has long been a scapegoat for Mud Island’s slide. But Colletta’s said she’s rethinking that narrative.
“I’m beginning to think that it’s the remoteness of Mud Island that is a strength," Colletta said. "So, how do you turn things upside down and think about the remoteness as a strength?”
For Koch, the remoteness of Governor’s Island gave visitors unmatched views of the New York skyline and waterfront. Since there were no cars allowed on the island, it also became a great place for parents to teach children how to ride bikes, she said.
For Kevin Kane, president and CEO of Memphis Tourism, reinvigorating Mud Island comes down to one thing, “people have to have a reason to go there.”
“I don’t think people feel like they can’t get to it,” he said. “If you give people something to do, they’ll show up over there.
“On the Fourth of July, we probably had 8,000 to 9,000 people over there and all we had was a band, and some fireworks, and some food trucks. It comes down to, if you get the right mix, it’ll hit.”