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VOL. 127 | NO. 84 | Monday, April 30, 2012

Gather at the River

Beale Street Landing and the American Queen set up shop on the Mississippi

By Bill Dries

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About a year ago Memphians were drawn to one spot in particular on the city’s riverfront.

The American Queen Steamboat arrived at Memphis for the first time on April 26. The 418-foot-long, 89-foot-wide steamboat has four levels for 436 passengers that will travel up and down the Mississippi River, with stops in Memphis that will deliver hundreds of tourists each week. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

At the foot of Beale Street, the Mississippi River had risen last May to a level where the muddy water covered the intersection of Riverside Drive and Beale, offering a view of an uninterrupted river stretching three miles from the intersection to the levees in West Memphis.

Not quite a year later, the highest river level since the record flood of 1937 is matched with the arrival of the world’s largest steamboat at the nearly completed Beale Street Landing.

Last May, the American Queen was a riverboat without an industry and the landing was a construction project adrift and out of political favor. But in the past year, the fortunes of each rose as rapidly as the river levels during the flooding.

The world’s largest steamboat arrived Thursday, April 26, at Beale Street Landing, the stalled-then-restarted civic project years in the making with patchwork funding across two presidential administrations and three Memphis mayors. The landing is mostly completed but is still a work in progress with its riverside restaurant and a gift shop to open in July.

“It culminates our vision that we shared with the city and with our private investors,” said Jeff Krida, the CEO of Memphis-based Great American Steamboat Co., the operator of The American Queen. “We’re excited because it showcases Memphis. It showcases the fact that Beale Street Landing was a great idea from the beginning.”

The 418-foot long, 89-foot wide steamboat with four levels for 436 passengers skews the scale of its surroundings on the Memphis riverfront but not the long-held and at times partially realized goal of a riverfront that is more of an entrance to the city and America east of the Mississippi River.

When the Beale Street Landing project began there was an overnight riverboat cruise industry on the Mississippi. That changed as the project drifted, federal funds dried up and changes at City Hall in 2009 – three mayors in four months – obscured it.

The landing and the industry have emerged on the other side.

The giant slabs that are the platforms allowing access to the river itself at its varying levels were tested in McKellar Lake, south of the Wolf River Harbor and then brought up river for attachment to the landing’s structure the weekend before the American Queen’s arrival.

Above those platforms is the restaurant that is to open in July with other retail space as well. It will be run by the owners and operators of Blues City Café on Beale Street with a plan that Riverfront Development Corp. president Benny Lendermon said realizes the different crowds that come to the river at different times of the day and seasons of the year.

“What it is in February is not what it is in April,” Lendermon said in explaining the concept of a restaurant that is a taste of Memphis for visitors and locals. “It’s got to be able to shrink and grow and morph into what it needs to be for a given period of time.”

Still to come is more of the park around the landing and on the new hill that is the roof of the restaurant and gift shop. Some of that may have to wait awhile.

The Memphis In May International Festival opens May 4 with the Beale Street Music Festival, followed by the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest May 17-19 and the Sunset Symphony on May 26.

Passengers can dine in luxury in the J.M. White Dining Room, part of the 418-foot-long, 89-foot-wide American Queen steamboat. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

The fenced-off landing was already drawing plenty of sightseers in the weeks before the American Queen’s arrival.

“It was a hard fight,” RDC board chairman John Stokes said earlier this month. “We had our naysayers. I guess we still have our naysayers.”

And some of the critics had a point.

“We had (cost) overruns,” Stokes admitted.

The $42.5 million project was originally budgeted at $20 million when it went on the drawing board around the turn of the century. That total includes $38.1 million for the construction.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. initially said the project would be scaled back. He quickly discovered that during the mayoral drift, the project had gone too far to be scaled back. He talked of finding private sources of funding. But the talk grew quiet and criticism of the project grew more vocal.

The criticism of a riverfront construction project isn’t new to Lendermon. As city public works director he oversaw construction of the bluffwalk overlooking Riverside Drive and Tom Lee Park that opened in 1999 during the administration of Mayor Willie Herenton.

The project had some important backers. But it also had some determined and vocal critics, including protesters who climbed some of the seven magnolia trees along the bluff to be cut down for the project, and for a time refused to come down.

Last year, GASC executives were in talks with leaders in Tunica about making the North Mississippi county’s river park the American Queen’s home port.

Tunica leaders, according to Krida, said no when GASC talked of stops in Memphis. It was a deal breaker.

GASC execs reached out to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who linked them up with Wharton. And Wharton immediately saw it as a life preserver for the landing project.

It is the latest addition to Tom Lee Park. The park was expanded in the early 1990s in a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project prompted by the large crowds attending the Memphis In May Festival which at that point didn’t yet feature the Beale Street Music Festival.

The Sunset Symphony had become so popular that the Memphis Park Commission had to enforce a rule banning overnight camping on the riverbluff overlooking the park.

The expansion also leveled out a Riverside Drive that had developed some unplanned dips and hills over the decades since the Crump era when the drive was created on what had been a city dumping ground.

The 1990s expansion of the park took in what had been John B. Edgar Point, a tiny ramp north of the original park that was where overnight riverboat cruises docked.

The cruises then featured some sightseeing in Memphis during the stop and even an event or two at The Peabody hotel. And those who worked the boats were a part of the Memphis economy.

But when GASC set up its headquarters at One Commerce Square last year, including a call center, the cruise business became a bigger employer with a bigger presence.

Krida said the two years off the river hurt but didn’t permanently damage the workforce along the river.

In New Orleans, the company has been working this month on a smoother and faster route from two of that city’s hotels to the boat.

“It’s a little bit complicated in New Orleans because it’s so busy there,” he said. “Some of our key staff that came from there did it for 15 or 20 years at all of these places before and they remember how.”

The industry has a high turnover rate. But Wharton pushed for GASC to hire more Memphians with the idea that the training they get will be applicable to other jobs as the hospitality industry grows in Memphis.

“What’s been more complicated is all of the wonderful positive people from Memphis we hired that never did some of the jobs we had them in before,” Krida said. “That’s taking a little while and a lot of hard work.”

Then-Memphis Mayor Dick Hackett also set a goal in the late 1980s and early 1990s of relocating the headquarters of Delta Queen Steamboat Co. to the city with Mud Island becoming a center for boarding the boats. The talks didn’t pan out.

Three mayors and 28 years later when the discussions did work out, it was a local investment by Pittco Management’s J.R. “Pitt” Hyde and the city’s $9 million ownership stake in the American Queen that were the keys to the deal.

The city’s money is an advance of federal funding the city gets. It is to be repaid through the $89 boarding fee passengers pay not only at Memphis but at other river ports on the journeys.

The deal was part of a third comeback in less than a decade for an industry hit hard by the recession as well as the acquisition of most of the cruise market by one carrier.

Majestic America Line bought up most of the industry, including Delta Queen Steamboat, in 2006. Less than two years later Majestic got out of the cruise business taking down not only the 85 percent of the Mississippi River cruises it had but the rest of the overnight cruise industry on the river.

“The prior company had issues that had a lot more to do with other things they were doing than steamboats,” Lendermon said.

Krida agreed. He said veterans of the collapsed industry saw a market for bringing back the cruises because of a river cruise industry in Europe that never went away. Krida is one of those veterans. He was president of Delta Queen Steamboat in the mid-1990s when the company commissioned the construction of the American Queen at a cost of $60 million. Memphis was one of the stops of the then-new boat in 1995.

“The fastest growing segment of the travel industry for mature adults in North America in the last decade has been European river cruising,” Krida said. “It’s partly because Eastern Europe became available. It’s been just huge. People look around and say, ‘Why can’t I cruise on America’s rivers without having to be on a $1,200, 14-hour red-eye flight and all of that.”

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