Sunday, June 18, 1995

Memphis harbors grand plan for port; Cobblestones anchor Wolf center

Commercial Appeal
by Cindy Wolf

Mayor W. W. Herenton plans to present City Council committees Tuesday with an $8.3 million proposal that would transform the Wolf River Harbor into a major tourist attraction and a retail center as the city prepares to enter the 21st Century.

The sweeping proposal could make Memphis a port city for the largest steamboat in the country, the American Queen. Details of the plan were discussed last week with several council committee chairmen in preparation for Tuesday's formal presentation to three council committees.

The plan includes a $350,000 contribution by First Tennessee Bank for an overlook plaza at the foot of Union Avenue. It would pay tribute to Ron Terry, the chairman of First Tennessee National Corp., who plans to retire at the end of the year.

Delta Queen Steamship Co. officials said they would consider Memphis for a port city if the docking situation is improved.

The New Orleans-based company's two other boats - the Mississippi Queen and the Delta Queen - average 13 turnarounds in Memphis a year. ''Turnaround'' means when the ship ends a cruise and spends the day preparing for its next group of passengers.

If approved, construction would begin within a few months on the first phase - the overlook plaza and the walkways. The development is expected to be completed by 1998 or 1999.

Riverfront development would be done in four phases:

-- Phase One: Development of the Ron Terry tribute overlook, a cobblestone walkway to connect the overlook to the new visitors center.

-- Phase Two: Walkway completion from the overlook, south to Beale and Tom Lee Park. It would be built along the top edge of the cobblestones.

-- Phase Three: Cobblestone restoration, starting in 1997.

-- Phase Four: City will secure three stationary barges that would provide up to 84,000 square feet for retail stores and restaurants. The city would develop the infrastructure for the retail once it has a private developer to build out the space for individual tenants.

The riverfront development proposal is a result of more than 1 1/2 years of planning, said Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb, who will explain the details of the proposal to council members.

"We needed a catalyst to get this thing started," Lipscomb said. "First Tennessee's commitment and Delta Steamship's interest in making this a turnaround city for the American Queen, I believe, are the catalysts."

Ralph Horn, president and chief executive officer of First Tennessee National Corp., said the bank spent about a year looking for a way to pay tribute to Terry in relation to what he has done for downtown Memphis, and public/private partnerships with which he has been involved.

"It seemed like a fitting tribute because of the historical aspects of the cobblestones and the river," Horn said. "Also, it seemed to be the catalyst to get the whole riverfront development going, so I think it fit real well with what we were trying to do for Ron."

Lipscomb said several cities including Baltimore, New Orleans, Covington, Ky., and St. Louis were looked at before the Memphis plan was developed.

"We wanted to create a type of boardwalk atmosphere with restaurants, shops, kind of have a feel of a mall where visitors can see the skyline at the same time,'' Lipscomb said. "If they can do it in New Orleans and in Covington, Ky., we can do it in Memphis. We'll make it the greatest city in the South."

The plan allocates $3 million from federal and city funds for restoration of the cobblestones, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Instead of removing them, they would be repaired and a retaining wall would be built.

The cobblestones have been a stumbling block for Delta Queen's large cruise steamships to come to Memphis because of the lack of docking facilities.

During their average 13 visits a year, the steamboats let passengers disembark to tour the city while the boats receive provisions, fuel and services. Those stops generate about $1.1 million for the local economy, not counting passenger spending.

The company said it would consider making Memphis a port city, which means it would book tours that begin and end here.

Last Wednesday, the company brought its new American Queen to Memphis for a one-day stop. The American Queen is the largest steamship in the country. It is 418 feet long and 90 feet wide and can carry about 436 passengers in 222 cabins. The ship had to back down the river from the cobblestones Wednesday and tie up to some trees in Tom Lee Park because of the rise in the Mississippi River.

"We would book tours and fly people into and out of Memphis," said Tracy Alleman, manager of media relations for the steamship company. "We book a lot of elderly passengers, and right now the cobblestones are a little difficult for them to walk up and down."

It would be a great way for travel agents to tie in the planned Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to take a two- or three-day tour along the Mississippi, said Chuck Curtis, president of A&I Travel Service Inc.

Also, the boats work with conventions in offering pre- and post-convention cruises that also serve as the transportation to and from the convention.

The city plans to apply for $700,000 in Interstate Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) funds. Later, Lipscomb will ask the City Council to approve $700,000 in Capital Improvement Program funds.

The ISTEA funds are collected through federal tax dollars and allocated to states to find alternative transportation methods to cars.

Half of the money would be supplied through federal sources. The other $4.4 million would come from ISTEA, Capital Improvement funds, Community Development Block Grants, $350,000 from First Tennessee and at least $500,000 from the sale of vacant land behind the Beale Street Historic District.

"We promised people at the time when we voted on the bluff walkway that we would ask for more federal dollars to continue that walkway," City Councilman Barbara Sonnenburg said. "The whole project will be a real drawing card for the city."

Caption:An $8.3 million plan to develop the Wolf River Harbor, shown here in an artist's rendering from Ritchie Smith Associates, would make Memphis a port city for the American Queen, the largest U.S. steamboat. The plan allocates funds for restoration of the cobblestones, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Copyright 1995 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

Labels: , ,

[Read the complete article...]