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Smoke on the Water

The Riverfront Development Corporation wants to bring fire art to the river, but its success depends on the park at Beale Street Landing.



For its most recent plans, the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) is looking to Providence. Providence, Rhode Island, that is.

In early October, two RDC staffers, two board members, and councilmen Harold Collins and Myron Lowery took a partially RDC-funded trip to Providence to visit that city's bimonthly WaterFire event, an art installation centered around 100 bonfires in the rivers that run through the city's downtown.

RDC president Benny Lendermon shared photos from the trip with the RDC board at a meeting last week.

"We would really like to figure out how to do something like this on the river here," Lendermon said, suggesting the event might work for the grand opening of Beale Street Landing. But that will depend on whether the RDC finds an additional $7 million needed to construct the public park at Beale Street Landing.

After the meeting, board members toured the landing construction site. Funding has been allocated for phase two of the $35 million project, and construction of a floating dock with a curving ramp and a ticketing and retail facility is well under way. Construction of those features should be completed by next fall.

The area where the public park should be, to the left of the construction site, is virtually untouched.

Lendermon says the park is critical to the success of the landing.

"Our deadline for finding park funding is July of next year," Lendermon said. "If the funds aren't available come July, that could cause us major, major, major problems. But we're not in total panic mode. We're working very hard to find funding."

Without the park, Lendermon said Beale Street Landing won't be very useful to the average citizen.

"The local tour boats can dock and drop off passengers, but the main purpose of this project was building the park," Lendermon said. "The landing won't be very attractive without the park, and things like WaterFire won't work because you can't get people close enough to the water."

The RDC, however, is carrying on with plans to study the possibility of WaterFire. The event's creator — artist Barnaby Evans — is planning a trip to Memphis to offer advice on how WaterFire could work here.

Now in its 16th year in Providence, WaterFire centers around bonfires lit in grills floating in three rivers. The fires are choreographed to music along each river. The event also features ballet or symphony performances and artist markets.

"It's had a huge impact on rebranding the city as a destination," Evans said. "It's the most popular arts event in our state, and it brings in about $40 million in new spending from out-of-state visitors who would not otherwise be visiting Providence."

Though a WaterFire event in Memphis is uncertain, Lendermon is already envisioning the theme: "The music tradition in Memphis is so large that if we do this here, the first one has to be about Memphis music."

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