The Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) announced plans this week to help revive Mud Island Amphitheater. The group formed a committee to begin working to ultimately bring concerts back to the 5,000-seat amphitheater.
The venue is part of the massive Mud Island River Park, opened in 1982 at a cost of $63 million. When it opened, the park included three restaurants. While those are closed, Mud Island still features an indoor museum (now closed because of COVID-19), a boat launch, a monorail with two terminals between a suspension bridge, and a five-block long scale model of the Lower Mississippi River.
Here’s how it was described in a 1982 full-page ad in The Tennessean right before it opened: “Not a theme park. Not an amusement park. Mud Island is a 50-acre Mississippi River adventure built by the people of Memphis.”
Mud Island River Park is one of several riverfront parks managed for the city by the Mississippi River Parks Partnership (MRPP). The group was criticized earlier this week by DNA president Jerred Price for allowing the park to fall into “despair” and allowing the stage at the amphitheater to remain unused since 2018. The group proposed finding a corporate sponsor who would get naming rights to the venue for money to fix it up. (See below.)
Courtesy: Jerred Price
George Abbott, director of external affairs for the MRPP, said the amphitheater is special but should be considered a part of the entire Mud Island River Park. To deliver the venue as a “minimum viable product” — for safety upgrades to even allow shows back there at all — it would cost $2 million. But to do it right for modern productions, it would cost more than $10 million. He said MRPP asked city leaders for the money this year but couldn’t blame them for not approving it. — Toby Sells
Memphis Flyer: What do you think about the DNA’s plans for Mud Island Amphitheater?
George Abbot:There's no denying that the amphitheater really sits in an incredible location and has a beautiful backdrop behind it. As such, it's an important asset for our city.
But I think it's very hard to consider the amphitheater in isolation. Mud Island was really built as a complete experience. I wasn’t alive when it opened. But I've heard people talk about it. You went there to eat at one of the restaurants. You visited the museum. There were shows every hour in the amphitheater. (The amphitheater) was really designed as a piece.
(The MRPP has) been in place for just over two years. We’ve had multiple discussions with venue operators about what can take place in the amphitheater, what needs to happen, which upgrades need to go in there. There hasn’t been a show in the amphitheater since 2018. [Allison Krauss and Widespread Panic were among the last shows there.]
If you look at the cost-assessment, you begin to see how it's inextricably tied to the rest of the island. You're looking at roughly around $2 million in capital expenses, that needs to be put in [the amphitheater] to achieve a minimum viable product. That's only the amphitheater itself.
Then, you begin to ask the question: Well, how do people get there? Then you start looking at some of the capital expenses for the two [monorail] terminals on either end. Then, you start asking questions about the monorail, and about the parking lot, and the escalators and elevators. It all adds up. We’ve worked with a couple of different firms to do cost estimates for all of Mud Island and they can get up to more than $20 million in capital expenses.
The discussions we've had with venue operators, and promoters all took place in a pre-pandemic environment. Looking ahead to the future, who knows what what the concert industry looks like and what the live-event industry looks like.
That, to me, actually creates a very exciting opportunity for the amphitheater. This could be a prototype of the new concert-going experience. But to get there, you need a little bit more understanding of what the landscape looks like. You need a very savvy, smart, and experienced operator to partner with us to get there.
I don't think there's really anyone who disagrees with the fact that we've got an asset on our hands. The discussion really is, again, we need the right partner to be in place, to operate this at a level that we all want to see here in Memphis. We’ve spoken of some of those offerings and we'll continue to have those discussions. But it takes some time and I don’t think really any concert promoters or operators are looking very far in the future right now.
Courtesy: Jerred Price
MF: As far as priorities right now for the MRPP, are Mud Island and the amphitheater, maybe No. 2 or No. 3 and Tom Lee Park is No. 1?
GA: I wouldn't necessarily rank them because we've been working on both of those projects at the same time.
We are stewards of public assets. As such, it is our responsibility to steward public assets in the way that brings the most benefits to the city. That’s one of the reasons I find it difficult to recommend spending that. … Let’s say you do the minimum viable product for the amphitheater. It’s about $2 million.
We actually asked for that money in the (the city’s Capital Improvement Program budget) this year. The city didn't give that that money to us. But, to be fair, I don't really blame them so much for that. That delivers you the safety upgrades inside the amphitheater itself. That doesn't do anything about access.
Some of the operators we've spoken to have estimated that you’d need about $8.5 million on top of that $2 million for the upgrades to the amphitheater — things like raising the roof so you can fit in modern productions — to really make it a competitive facility.
So, I don't blame (city leaders) for not approving that money while there isn’t some kind of a comprehensive plan in place for the island.
Our job as stewards of public assets is to invest in places where they can have the most impact, which is precisely why there has been a focus not just on Tom Lee Park, but on all of our parks that are adjacent to Downtown. As such, they’re accessible to many, many more people without necessarily having to drive and bringing the associated economic benefit to Downtown businesses.
One of the problems with Mud Island, for me, is that it was always kind of pitched as like the theme-park-type experience. It was difficult to access and most people would drive Downtown or you'd even drive directly on onto Mud Island, the parking lot over there, and that was kind of your day out. That's what it was designed as.
Mississippi River Parks Partnership
You’d come Downtown. Experience the theme park. Stay in the theme park. Eat here. Entertain yourself here, and then get back in your car, and drive away.
If we think of how we build a successful and thriving Downtown, you want people to do multiple things on that trip. So, you come Downtown, maybe have dinner on the [Main Street] Mall. You visit a riverfront park and then go to a show at the Orpheum, all without having to get back into that into that car. Every time someone gets back into that car, it's a potential that they drive away and they drive out of Downtown.
So, connectivity is key and that’s always been Mud Island’s weakness. And that's why our focus in the past couple of years has been on those places that are accessible, that bring the economic impacts of Downtown, but that also are accessible and close to the neighborhoods to the north and south of Downtown that have been economically depressed for a long time.
For some people, visiting the riverfront is kind of the place where they find peace. It's the place that is kind of the equivalent for a vacation. So, it makes sense to invest in places that are most accessible to them.
MF: Is Mud Island River Park open right now?
GA: It is. All of the riverfront parks are open. What is closed are the the inside facilities. So, that means that the (Mud Island) terminals and the walk bridge are closed, but you can still access the park from from Island Drive.
Mississippi River Parks Partnership
MF: What do you say to the folks who go over there and they see the cracks and the weeds and are concerned about the maintenance and upkeep of Mud Island?
GA: It's important to make a distinction between maintenance and capital expenses. We could talk for a long, long time about Mud Island, but the program was built with an assumption of self-sustaining revenue. There was the ticket price. There were businesses there and restaurants over there.
Very, very quickly after it opened those visitorship projections didn't didn't bear out. And ... it became a loss-making project. Four or five years after it opened, it was kind of kicked around. It was managed by various entities. I'm pretty sure [Pyramid developer] Sydney Schlencker managed it at one point before the [Riverfront Development Corporation] was created.
Because the revenue isn’t there, the backlog of maintenance issues began all the way back in the 1980s. There's a point where it becomes a capital expense. What’s in our contract and what's in our budget for the city is the general day-to-day maintenance. The things that are not in that are these … capital expenses.
We've done the cost estimates and baked in everything over there to get it to the 1982 standard. You're looking at more than $20 million. But, again, it's difficult for me to recommend that as a good use of public assets. Because that delivers you … Okay, we got Mud Island that's just the way it was in 1982, with a program that that didn't succeed in 1982. It’s now 2020.
Mississippi River Parks Partnership
You know there’s a very, very different recreation market and a very, very different concept market. [Mud Island] really needs kind of a comprehensive plan ... I mentioned that connectivity was always a disadvantage of Mud Island, but it can also be an added advantage, depending on what you're using it for. Like, you're at once close but far away. So, you almost need to find that longtime use to take advantage of that.
There’s a lot of concrete over there. It was built with one idea of how it can be used. When that use didn't pan out, it then became a problem. I think that that's why you if you look at the Tom Lee plans, you'll see that pretty much everything in the park is flexible and multipurpose, which is which is the way that we build nowadays.
That’s the way that we build kind of every project. There’s very few single-use projects. Even if you think of somewhere like (Crosstown Concourse). It’s that mix of shops, school, healthcare, and apartments. It has flexible sets that can be reconfigured depending on how the economy changes and how our tastes change.
That’s really the gold standard for public spaces now. We want to avoid building things like, like Mud Island to have one program and build things that are flexible and that can adapt and change over time.
MF: Is there anything you want to add or anything we left out?
GA: I would just like to make two additional points because I think I noticed in [the article on Jerred Price] there were these claims that we used to have hundreds of concerts a year at the amphitheater. We looked back. The last time there were double figures (for concerts) annually was 2011. The most concerts ever held in a year on Mud Island was 21 and that was back in 1997.
So, again, just thinking about how we're spending dollars. That's 21 nights a year. As good stewards, we've got to say, okay, what would it take to get us to 21 nights a year and could that even happen?
Everyone forgets that it’s 5,000 seats over there with the bleachers. You take the bleachers away — the bleachers are terrible — it goes down to 4,000. Just as a comparison, the Landers Center is 8,000. Snowden Grove is 11,000. So, they're really not competing on the same playing field.
There’s a question as to could you even get back up to that 21 nights per year? And then if you do, what's the outturn you need to get there? What’s the return on that? This is a more complicated issue than it appears on the face of it.
I think a lot of people have memories of going to concerts there and if it could just be that again, it would be great. But then once you peek beneath the hood and look at the numbers, it becomes more complicated.