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VOL. 129 | NO. 125 | Friday, June 27, 2014

Landing Zone

After decade of development, Beale Street Landing prepares to open

By Bill Dries

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Beale Street Landing was supposed to cost far less than $43 million and be completed much sooner than the decade it took from the design competition.

But the head of the Riverfront Development Corp. overseeing the 6-acre landing and its construction says with the formal two-day opening of the landing starting Friday, June 27, the riverfront project at the foot of Beale Street and on the northern edge of Tom Lee Park should begin to counter critics of how the project has been managed.

Beale Street Landing formally opens with events this weekend, starting with a Friday, June 27, ribbon cutting on the landing’s playground. The project includes a restaurant and kitchen run by the Riverfront Development Corp. and lots of riverboat traffic, including daily excursion boats and larger overnight cruise boats. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“You have to understand what’s being accomplished down there,” said Benny Lendermon, president of the nonprofit Riverfront Development Corp., which manages the city’s riverfront for the city. “When it gets up and running and you see all the boats docking and the rentals and the playground … it’s just magical.”

The formal opening of the Island Play playground Friday at 10 a.m. is the first in the series of opening events. Tours follow until 2 p.m., and a “community celebration” is planned at the landing Saturday from noon to 7 p.m. that will feature music by the Bo-Keys, Marcella and Her Lovers and Trio Plus.

Lendermon says the park, which includes the only Downtown playground for children 10 and younger, is the real centerpiece of the landing.

At the opening, the nonprofit has decided to run a vital and stubborn piece of the landing itself – its restaurant – for at least the first year.

Former Napa Café general manager Beth Bomarito, whose family also owns and operates Pete & Sam’s, is managing the restaurant for the Riverfront Development Corp.

The corporation built out the landing’s kitchen, with help as well from a designer on carpets and furnishings, after a deal with the Beale & Second Inc. restaurant group fell through in May 2013.

Lendermon said some of the restaurant pros consulted were overthinking the restaurant as a destination, “which was never, ever what we designed the building for, nor what we thought could work.”

He describes its mission as being a “food amenity” for both locals and tourists, serving high-quality food and a happy hour to watch the sunset on the river.

“On a small day, we have at least two trips there with 150 people on each boat and on weeknights, you may have four to six boats coming and going and being able to accommodate those people,” Lendermon said of the Memphis Queen line daily excursion boats. “We underestimated the demand as a rental facility and how the rentals affect the restaurant. They have to sort of work hand in hand and then actually the number of large boats docking there (is) much more frequent than we ever anticipated.

“When they dock there, they pretty much shut things down and make it very difficult to have normal operations there. It’s a good thing for Memphis because it generates lots of tourist dollars, but maybe not a great thing for the restaurant in some cases.”

The landing project stopped and started several times, and the project drifted with a growing price tag in 2009 as the city had three mayors in less than a year – starting with Willie Herenton, who ended his 17 years as mayor and was replaced on an interim basis by Myron Lowery and then by A C Wharton Jr., who won a special election late that year.

Wharton’s initial reaction was to look for ways to scale back the project and complete it quickly, but he soon came to the conclusion that the project was too far along to scale it back.

State regulations that governed the use of some funding that had already been spent changed, and the city had to reimburse the money and then find a new source of funding to complete the work.

“Even though it ended up costing more money because of steel prices and all of those other things, the controversy had us look at it so hard and for such a length of time and to figure out ways to modify and change it,” Lendermon said. “Controversy is hard, and sometimes it costs you more money, but in many cases it also renders a better project.”

Greg Duckett, chairman of the Riverfront Development Corp. board, also acknowledges the controversy.

“Indeed, change is hard and not everyone agrees with every change proposed,” he wrote in a message on the group’s website. “Changes to the riverfront have been no different. Some individuals have raised legitimate concerns related to historical context, aesthetics and other important areas of various improvement projects.”

The overnight river cruise industry, which was among the reasons for the landing, collapsed on a national scale twice before the American Queen was refurbished and chose Memphis as its home port and the site of its headquarters. The company began cruises from the landing in March 2013.

Lendermon said the number of overnight cruise boats stopping at the landing will probably increase.

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