Editorial: Memphis in May Events Still Deliver

Saturday, May 11, 2013, Vol. 6, No. 20

Watching the evolution of the Memphis in May International Festival, it is easy to lose sight of who is in the crowds by the river with us.

It turns out a lot of them aren’t from Memphis, strictly speaking. The irony is for all of our more high-profile efforts to bring in visitors from the larger region, we have built quite the model for nearly 40 years while we were having what many of us regarded as our annual big party for ourselves by the river.

As our cover story points out, a 2012 analysis by the University of Memphis for the festival shows the events have a direct economic impact on the area of more than $70 million.

Or take a look at a post-event survey after the 2012 events that shows 72 percent came from 50 or more miles away, about the same as the survey for the year before showed.

Last year, those visitors spent $9.4 million on hotel rooms to stay here just during the Beale Street Music Festival opening weekend.

The evolution of Memphis in May in the last 37 years suggests there will be changes if not in structure then in the appeal of specific events.

The Sunset Symphony, then and now at the end of the festival month, was once the high point in terms of attendance with people camping atop the bluff overlooking Riverside Drive a week in advance of it.

Then came the Beale Street Music Festival’s move from a parking lot on Beale Street to the multiple stages in Tom Lee Park, an approach developed and talent attracted through the connections of the late Bob Kelley and his Mid-South Concerts organization.

And when Tom Lee Park expanded in the 1990s, the already large footprint of the barbecue festival was ready to take in the new territory as well on its weekend.

Sometimes we lose track of who the honored country is. Admit it.

The irony is the original goal of this back in the mid 1970s – when our civic inferiority complex was in full bloom and seemingly nothing we attempted Downtown was working – was to promote international trade with a specific country.

Japan was picked as the first honored country precisely because a Japanese corporation, Sharp Manufacturing, was about to build a plant way out in Hickory Hill to make new television sets.

So we invited Sharp executives and Japanese diplomats, found some Japanese flags and let fly with a much smaller Tom Lee Park that was still separated from what was John B. Edgar Point, a stage in an uneven parking lot up the bluff and a few barbecue grills in the shadow of the newly rechristened Orpheum.

All these years later, the party with a cause goes on in a city forever changed by a good time.