Friday, December 17, 1999

New Group Aims to Control Riverfront Parks; Winning Confidence of City Council, Private Sector is Key

Commercial Appeal
by Deborah M. Clubb

They have Mayor Willie Herenton's support, a charter for a new organization and a wealth of research and planning data by city personnel and private consultants.

But they don't have control of Memphis's 11 riverfront parks, and that missing link occupied Herenton's Riverfront Steering Committee Thursday.

The group, appointed by Herenton last spring, has chartered a new nonprofit organization that would coordinate planning, funding and development of five miles of riverfront bounded by the Wolf River on the north, Chickasaw Heritage Park on the south and Front Street on the east.

Herenton told the City Council last week that Public Works director Benny Lendermon will retire and become Herenton's bridge to the new organization as executive director of Riverfront Development Inc. But Herenton said the issue of control of the riverfront parks, long managed by the Memphis Park Commission, remained unresolved.

It was clear Thursday that Lendermon wants the new organization's authority and its source of operating funds spelled out before he completes a deal to take the job.

"A few issues still exist," Lendermon said.

Committee members reviewed a map detailing the waterfront parks, including the Mississippi Greenbelt, Mud Island, Tom Lee, Confederate and Martyr's.

"Can we be effective in somehow implementing, at long last, a strategic, grand plan and coordinating the efforts of everybody and finally being able to say 'we did it' ... if in fact we have to yield to other agencies or other authorities?" asked committee chairman John Stokes.

Control of the parks should not be a turf war or dispute about who can better operate them, said vice chairman Kristi Jernigan.

The overriding issue is the confidence of donors who could help pay for projects, she said.

After talking with foundations and other possible contributors, she said, "it is a concern with them, who is programming and maintaining the riverfront. They are not keen on making donations to government."

Steering committee member Fred Davis, a Memphis Park Commission member and a former City Council member, cautioned that making any change in policy about the parks could take time.

"In time, whatever reservations some of us have about transferring parks to a riverfront committee could be resolved...but if we are talking about a real fast, quick fix between this committee and City Council, it bothers me.

"I don't think it's going to be that simple with the Park Commission and I don't think it's going to be that simple with me."

But Jernigan and Stokes rejected the prospect of long negotiations. "I'm personally not here to wait five years to figure out how we're going to do this," Jernigan said.

"And I'm not either," said Stokes. ``My feeling is the City Council will finally agree with what's in the best interest of the city of Memphis and the riverfront."

Hotel operator Mabra Holeyfield said he believes the City Council will support the new organization when members understand the goal of attracting private funds. "It's not taking somebody else's project or somebody else's turf."{

Architect Dianne Dixon said the public will have to be assured that private funding and private oversight of the parks will not decrease public access.

While continuing to develop the organization, the committee also voted to seek authority from city officials to rebid and build the long-delayed and long-funded $2.4 million cobblestone walkway on the western edge of Riverside Drive.

Construction of the Ron Terry Plaza, funded by First Tennessee Bank, and a 10-foot-wide walkway from Jefferson Davis Park and the Tennessee Welcome Center to Tom Lee Park was stopped by the minority contractors' lawsuit against the city.

Designs were approved in early 1997 and construction had been anticipated by September 1997. If the City Council has to vote again on the already appropriated funds in order to transfer them, "I don't expect a problem," Lendermon said. "When we get that project done, it does so much to tie downtown together."

Copyright 2000 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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