Anew convention center is not going to happen any time soon. There is no political will to finance another large public space built on the premise of “if you build it, they will come.”
But the political dead space we find ourselves in is an opportunity for us to lay some basic groundwork that gets at the larger issue of becoming a year-round destination for all kinds of tourism. That’s the family vacation, the pilgrimage to Graceland in August and the annual business conference or convention as well as a weekend getaway to someplace fun.
How many of us have done that recently to Nashville? No need to raise your hand. You know who you are. And we know that for most of you, you may have taken a look at Nashville’s new convention center but you weren’t there to attend a conference or convention there.
We have to make Memphis an easier city to visit. We have to make Memphis an easier place to visualize having fun in.
Too often there is the view among our visitors that going to offbeat places worth the effort is also going to involve what panhandlers call “paying dues.”
For our purposes, we are talking about more serious barriers beyond panhandling, like the security checkpoints to get onto Beale Street after a certain hour. There are also exorbitant parking rates and an abysmal public transportation system that could do much to bring into the mix motel and hotel rooms outside the eight-block distance rule of thumb for meeting planners.
For a visitor staying outside that eight-block or so radius, finding their way to a meeting destination can be an ordeal. That is especially perplexing when you consider that the time it takes to get just about anywhere in Memphis is a half hour tops, much less in most cases.
Some businesses have started what amounts to their own bus route for locals and visitors alike to simply get places they want to go other than work. There is the concept that some experiences like the Shelby Farms Greenline are something for locals as opposed to visitors, but maybe guests as long as they have someone who lives here to show them the ins and outs.
When we stop feeling that we have to limit tourists and other visitors to some kind of zone to protect them from the Memphis we live and work in and enjoy every day, we will begin to build the kind of sustainable market we want for more hotel and motel rooms. Then, and only then, should we commit to a new convention center.
Hotels and convention centers may always be a “chicken and egg” discussion. But it is essential that whichever comes first, the other follow it closely and both must be responses to an evolution of a more open Memphis without separating visitors from Memphians.