VOL. 131 | NO. 213 | Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Residents Embracing Big River Crossing
By Bill Dries
On the first Saturday morning in which it was consistently autumn by the weather conditions as well as the calendar, political leaders on both sides of the Mississippi River walked from Memphis and West Memphis to meet in the middle of the Big River Crossing.
The formal opening Saturday, Oct. 22, of the Big River Crossing drew a large crowd on both sides of the Harahan Bridge. Crowds continued to come to the crossing the next day, after all of the formalities were done.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
The Memphis group, led by Mayor Jim Strickland, began walking across after cutting a ribbon at the eastern entrance to the bicycle and pedestrian boardwalk and the blast of a steam whistle from Union Pacific railroad’s last steam engine.
The West Memphis group, led by Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, began walking from a tented brunch on the concrete landing on the Arkansas side that the nearby Frisco Bridge crosses over.
There were lots of people to be recognized on both sides of the river in a day of activities that included a Saturday evening bridge lighting.
But there were also a lot of individual experiences and reflections that show a deeper connection for the $17.5 million project.
After he talked about the importance of the project to economic development on both sides of the bridge and to the quality of life, Hutchinson said, “It’s also about friends. I actually proposed to my wife underneath a sycamore by the Mississippi River on the Memphis side.”
Strickland, too, made room for a broader calculation of the impact.
“Think about it,” he told a crowd of more than 100 supporters of the project and elected leaders at Church of the River. “Unless you’ve been a train conductor, it is a view you’ve not seen of Memphis since 1949.”
The “wagon ways” people traveled on both sides of the Harahan Bridge were abandoned in 1949 when the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge opened to automobile traffic.
“It’s particularly appropriate as we approach the city’s bicentennial in 2019,” Strickland added. “It reminds us of the reason that we are here at all and that’s the Mississippi River.”
Strickland was elected last year, in part, on a belief that high property tax rates – city and county combined – are causing a loss of population in Memphis that also damages economic development prospects. And that loss of population is what Strickland made his cause in the election.
In the church Saturday, he acknowledged it’s not just the property tax rates.
“It’s not just how much taxes do I pay and all of that. It’s where the talent is,” he said. “They want to go to cities where young talented people want to live. All of these cities across the country are in a war to create more and more amenities to attract the best and brightest young people. And this is going to help us with economic development.”
But the crossing was never a no-holds barred pursuit of the boardwalk at any cost.
Project manager Paul Morris held to a vow that no work on the crossing as part of the larger Main Street to Main Street Multi-Modal Connector project would begin until all of the money was in hand – the federal grant as well as a state match and money from private donors.
The project came in over budget on a first round of bids and was rebid with some different provisions before ultimately coming in $1.5 million under budget and two weeks early.
Commodities firm founder and philanthropist Charles McVean led the drive for the private funding for the crossing as well as the network of trails on the Arkansas side. And in the process he became the project’s salesman in chief.
McVean confessed Saturday that at the outset of his involvement he thought the chances of getting the project done were “slim at best.”
Those doubts stemmed from what he called the “deep cultural aversion” railroad companies have to ideas like boardwalks close enough to railroad tracks to reach out and touch the trains. There is also the railroad credo that “people and trains don’t mix.”
“You can get closer to trains than ever before,” McVean said. “I didn’t dare say that then.”
But McVean did dare to jump the chain of command at Union Pacific that is normally a graveyard for such undertakings. He did it through his friendship with U.S. Sen. Mike Johans of Nebraska who got the Memphis and West Memphis delegation a meeting with Union Pacific CEO Jim Young at the railroad’s Omaha headquarters in 2011.
Jack Sammons, who worked for McVean Trading before becoming chief administrative officer under two mayors, remembered Young greeting the group by saying, “My senator says I am in favor of this project.”
The group left with Young agreeing in principle to the general idea, but a federal grant necessary for the project still a long shot. The city of Memphis had missed in a previous application for a $9 million transportation grant. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen suggested combining the crossing with applications for federal grants to improve Main Street Memphis and Broadway in West Memphis, that city’s version of Main Street, and seek $13 million.
McVean’s approach on the Big River Crossing, as well as other civic projects he’s pursued over the years, is to pitch the project with overwhelming force and all available influence and connections, keeping up the pitch until the person being pitched capitulates.
He hired attorney Charles Newman in the pursuit. Newman described McVean as “a force of nature.”
“Charles McVean does things big,” Cohen said. “Memphis, the city, has been made by people who thought big.”
But McVean did not originate the idea, which had been pitched unsuccessfully since the mid-1970s.
McVean was approached by Greg Maxted, an engineer who was McVean’s alter ego in the numerous pitches to various groups to build interest in something that was only a drawing five years ago.
Maxted was as patient in his pursuit as McVean was aggressive.
Maxted took countless groups of three and four people at a time off the Bridgeport Road exit and onto dirt roads – public and private – argued with railroad police about what was public land and what was railroad land – all leading to the spectacular views of the Memphis skyline from the West Memphis flood plain.
Once the federal transportation grant came in, it brought new challenges – primarily a strict and tight timeline for each segment.
“We felt like we had a tiger by the tail and it was about to eat us,” project manager Morris said.
The work isn’t over.
From the West Memphis side of the crossing, travelers can bicycle 71 miles of levee trails in eastern Arkansas.
Work begins next week on a five-mile trail loop onto the flood plain between the West Memphis levee and the Mississippi River. The trail loop will take hikers and bikers onto farm fields, to Dacus Lake for views of the Memphis skyline, and to the original site of the settlement of Hopefield that preceded the city of West Memphis.
State Sen. Keith Ingram of West Memphis, who is also a former mayor of West Memphis, said there are plans beyond that.
“We are looking at building a new library Downtown,” he said. “The schools are looking at possible consolidation and a new facility on Broadway. I think this is another component in revitalizing that area. To be able to tie into what’s going on in Downtown Memphis is just remarkable. I think we’ve got a great future.”
The day after the ceremonies, the future continued to look bright with waves of people on foot and bicycle coming to the crossing Sunday. The Pancho’s restaurant in West Memphis, three miles from the crossing and across Broadway from the Big River Trail trailhead, was busy Sunday as well.
In the two-way traffic on the crossing with plenty of pauses for selfies and skyline pictures, it was a bit easier to spot Memphians, or at least those coming from Memphis, by the orange wristbands from the RiverArtsFest in South Main.