VOL. 120 | NO. 94 | Wednesday, May 3, 2006
When Opportunity Knocks ...
As thousands upon thousands of Memphians and visitors prepare to head to Tom Lee Park for this weekend's Beale Street Music Festival, we are reminded once again that this jewel in the crown of Downtown has become an entertainment staple for our region. The Memphis in May International Festival celebrates Costa Rica this year. But the month-long festival also is a time to celebrate everything that makes Memphis unique.
A city has to be more than just a place to live and work. A thriving urban community needs good shopping, dining, theater, sports and cultural activities. Festivals sometimes are viewed as no more than a time for locals to "get away" in their own city for a few days and something for the Convention and Visitors Bureau to promote. That might be true in a sense.
But festivals - especially on the grand scale of the month-long Memphis in May celebration - give a community something to take pride in. Many people debated whether New Orleans had its priorities straight when it announced Mardi Gras would go on despite the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Of course, rebuilding levees, cleaning up communities and repairing lives are more important than making sure a party goes off. But New Orleans' identity is tied to Mardi Gras. That festival was a rallying point for locals, raising morale for the more important work the community has in its future.
It might be a stretch to call Memphis in May the heart and soul of Memphis, but the festival is one of the vital arteries that keeps the blood flowing in this river town. With the right support, the right level of morale-building pride, Memphis' identity could be tied to Memphis in May. We might have political woes, budget crises and many other problems to contemplate, but the real Memphis is blues, barbecue, culture, history, entertainment. It's all those things and much more, and Memphis in May certainly is a celebration of what's great about Memphis.
Memphis in May's marquee events put two of Memphis' greatest cultural attributes - its music and food - on a national stage. Critics might argue that the Beale Street Music Festival offers a loose interpretation of Memphis music once you venture outside the blues tent. But for a city as diverse as Memphis, the festival is a great representation of the city's musical range. There aren't many places on earth where fans of Willie Nelson mingle with fans of Three 6 Mafia, Little Richard, Stone Temple Pilots and B.B. King. And the festival has done a better job in recent years of pulling in a wider range of musical genres to attract a broader audience.
And how about what the festival can do to promote the city's economic growth? Memphis in May spurs growth that reaches well beyond tourism dollars. The festival annually brings foreign representatives who are looking at the best Memphis has to offer, giving local business owners a chance to build relationships in new areas. In an increasingly global economy, every international business opportunity Memphis-area companies are given is a huge plus for the city. Jim McCarthy of the U.S. Embassy in San Jose's speech May 11 on trade opportunities in Costa Rica is just one of a number of chances Memphians have to learn about opportunities in the honored country.
Memphis in May is something we can embrace and call our own - a source of pride and a reason to rally together. But it's also a festival with a worldwide audience - an audience whose culture we will embrace and who, in turn, will listen with interest about ours.