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VOL. 123 | NO. 154 | Thursday, August 7, 2008

Beale Street Landing, Parks Highlight RDC’s Future

By Andy Meek

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ON THE RIVER: The Riverfront Development Corp. is managing a plethora of development projects large and small – including Mud Island River Park. -- PHOTO COURTESY OF THE RIVERFRONT DEVELOPMENT CORP.

The Riverfront Development Corp.’s latest annual report is out. It includes short profiles of more than a dozen Memphians with various ties to Downtown and who enjoy the riverfront in a variety of ways.

The people featured include corporate heavy hitters, a professional fisherman, nonprofit executives and three first-grade girls who attend Downtown Elementary School. A few of the profiles in the annual report are accompanied by short question-and-answers, which focus on issues such as why the Mississippi River is important.

And that’s about it. No pie charts or financial statistics that explain how the nonprofit group charged with maintaining Memphis’ front door is weathering the economic slide that’s punishing almost every level of the public and private sectors.

What’s next?

It almost begs the question: Just how is the eight-year-old RDC faring at the moment? And what’s in store for the quasi-governmental entity whose board is stacked with prominent Memphians such as University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari and outdoorsman Bill Dance?

One answer to the second question was obvious last week with the official groundbreaking for Beale Street Landing, a more than $27 million attraction that will include a boat landing, parking lot, restaurant and more. That project is set to be finished in the fall of 2010.

It’s one of several areas of the RDC’s operation that president Benny Lendermon – a former director of public works for the city of Memphis – said has been reconfigured in response to economic conditions. Other steps the RDC has taken include eliminating a top management position and looking for ways to shave the large utility bill the RDC pays for Mud Island River Park.

The RDC is now in its second five-year contract with the city of Memphis to operate the riverfront parks and green spaces.

“With Beale Street Landing, we’ve eliminated steel wherever we could because steel prices have gone up so much,” Lendermon said. “In other areas, we’re lucky in that we have, for example, a multiyear landscaping contract. So the economy, at least for the short term, doesn’t affect us there.

“When we first took over the riverfront, we looked at things we could do cheaper by outsourcing. Grass cutting – it makes no sense for us to cut grass. We can certainly hire people seasonally to do that. Picking up litter in the parks – we could outsource that, but we chose not too, because we know it’s too important. We wanted to have control over picking up the trash, emptying the garbage, because we think those things make a difference in the parks.”

Belt tightening

The RDC’s utility bill, which mostly is comprised of costs at Mud Island, comes in at a little less than half a million dollars a year and represents a large chunk of the group’s budget. Among the cost-cutting steps the RDC has taken recently is the elimination last year of the position of operations director after the most recent director was ready to retire.

Instead of filling that position again, the responsibilities were parceled out among the existing staff.

“It’s no different than anywhere else in corporate America,” Lendermon said. “You tighten your belt and work a little harder.”

Tough economic times aside, meanwhile, the RDC is not slowing down. Among the projects both large and small on its drawing board include an upgrade of Chickasaw Heritage Park, which is at Riverside Drive and Ornamental Metal Museum Drive.

“We’ve surveyed the neighboring residents of French Fort to find out what park amenities they’d like to see, and now we’re working a design for the improvements they’ve requested,” said RDC spokeswoman Dorchelle Spence.

After work on Beale Street Landing is finished, a planning process for enhancements to Mud Island will pick up steam, according to the RDC’s annual report. Other short-term initiatives include working with the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau to reel in a major entertainment event sponsored by Red Bull, the well-known energy drink company.

The event is called Flugtag, and Memphis is under consideration by Red Bull to be a host city for a coming Flugtag contest. The contest is a spectacle that involves teams gathering to basically launch all manner of homemade, human-powered flying machines into the air.

The events often bring tens of thousands of spectators to watch.

“We do a lot of exploratory searches and scout out locations and venues well in advance for potential events in the future,” said Red Bull spokeswoman Lisa Beachy. “The city itself – because it’s a major market, it’s along the water, it has a great culture and sports mix – we’re exploring the opportunity of looking at it as a future host city.”

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