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VOL. 131 | NO. 18 | Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Five Mud Island Proposals Go Public

By Bill Dries

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A Memphis resort hotel group headed by mortgage banker and hotel manager Paul Westphal is proposing a 500-room resort hotel and spa in Mud Island River Park that would incorporate the island’s River Walk in its lobby.

The proposal by Memphis Equity Brand Management is one of five made to the Riverfront Development Corp. by Jan. 20 in response to a request for qualifications process for redevelopment of the city-owned river park.

Those proposals were made public Monday, Jan. 25.

All five of the companies advance to a second round of consideration in which they have a month to present to the RDC more detailed plans including how they intend to finance their respective projects.

Initially the RDC board had not planned to release the details of the submissions from the companies in the first round.

That changed with a later RDC board vote to make the proposals public.

In addition to Westphal, the group formed around the project called “Memphis River Hotel” includes mergers and acquisitions expert Tim Purselley of Germantown, Stephen Moran of Atlanta whose specialty is hotel operations and Joe Elmiger of Austin, Texas who is overseeing concept development.

Westphall managed hotels for Hyatt for 10 years. He’s also been involved in the Sheraton Casino in Tunica and Atlanta’s Omni International hotel.

In his cover letter, Westphal said he hopes to interest Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris as a potential investor and speculates the hotel could be a Marriott, pending negotiations with the chain.

The park’s monorail would run “almost into the hotel lobby,” according to the proposal which also calls for a parking garage and possibly a cruise boat at the Mud Island Marina.

MEBM would keep the amphitheater in its plans but the operation of that and the rest of the park would continue to be the responsibility of the Riverfront Development Corp.

The Mansion Entertainment and Media LLC of Branson, Mo. is only interested in operating the park’s amphitheater.

Mansion Entertainment is best known for the Branson theater it operates under the name “The Mansion.” The company has 15 years’ experience operating various venues.

The Mansion proposal estimates it would take $3 million to rehab the amphitheater and another $1 million to upgrade equipment including lighting and audio.

Mansion is proposing a schedule of up to 10 shows in the summer months at the venue and a two-month fall series. The company is still considering a spring season of shows but expressed some concern about the weather during those sometimes rainy months.

The company estimates the concerts at 75 percent attendance in the summer and 95 percent in the fall would bring in $4.4 million in revenues at ticket prices from $65-$125.

A comprehensive and detailed plan by RVC Outdoor Destinations of Memphis went public before the deadline for the submissions.

RVC founder Andy Cates talked publicly about a plan for the entire river park that includes keeping and upgrading both the amphitheater and the River Walk.

RVC’s plan would feature cottages and safari tents with lots of amenities on the western side of the park in an extension of the Greenbelt Park north of the river park to the southern tip of Mud Island. There would be additional parking but no new parking garage involved.

RVC would make the northern road entrance to the park the primary entrance and scrap the monorail, using the walkway atop the monorail as a modified pedestrian and bicycle crossing similar to Manhattan’s High Line pathway.

Cates’ plan also calls for a development agreement directly with the city of Memphis that would not involve the Riverfront Development Corp.

Cates has said the details of his plan are tentative and that he is willing to partner with other companies willing to take on pieces of the park but not the entire acreage.

ML Professional Properties, the group headed by Mark Lovell, founder of the Delta Fair, includes nearly two pages in its presentation of attractions for the park.

That includes three new bridges for pedestrian access to the park, zip lines across the city harbor and “sky lifts” resembling ski lifts between the Pyramid and the north half of Mud Island as well as between Beale Street landing and the south end of the island.

ML also proposes a U-shaped fishing pier by Bass Pro Shops, a water park that could convert to an ice rink and a museum similar to the City Museum of St. Louis.

Lovell would also poll the public for a new name for the park, dropping the Mud Island brand.

Bass Pro Shops was the only one of the five firms that did not have some kind of plan for all or part of the river park.

“At this time, we do not have a specific project concept to present,” wrote Michael Dunham, Bass Pro Shops real estate director in a two-page cover letter that was the company’s complete submission.

“We have considered resort, timeshare, entertainment and museum uses, to name a few,” he added.

Dunham said its lease on the Pyramid gives it a “large vested interest” in the area and that he hoped the company would be consulted on future plans for the park even if it is not selected for the redevelopment of Mud Island.

Bass Pro Shops letter also highlights the company’s belief that plans for the river park should be coordinated with plans for the Pyramid, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Pinch district.

“It seems quite clear to us that all four of these projects can be uniquely tied together further enhancing the downtown Memphis redevelopment,” the letter adds.

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