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VOL. 132 | NO. 163 | Thursday, August 17, 2017

Feeling Like Home

A year later, visitors warming to Shelby Farms’ Heart of the Park

By Don Wade

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During the construction phase, Shelby Farms Park executive director Jen Andrews would often look out her office window and imagine what the new Heart of the Park project would look like when it was done.

It has been almost a year since completion and often she’ll see a group of runners turning miles together or people walking their dogs. But she saw all those things before, too. Now, on the so-called front porch of the new Visitor’s Center, a group of mothers might gather with their babies in strollers.

“They’ll sing lullabies,” Andrews said. “Very soothing. I like that.”

Another day, she looked out from her office window and saw an impromptu class: “A woman teaching her friend how to walk on high heels across the front porch. It was like looking out on a runway.”

The expanded lake and new amenities make Shelby Farms Park a must-see for out-of-town visitors to Memphis, but locals are beginning to find their stride there as well. (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

So no limits to how the park might be used. That, of course, was the idea all along.

The $52 million Heart of the Park project retained what people enjoyed about the old park, but improved existing features and added new amenities. The lake grew in size and the old single 1.6-mile path around it is now two separate 2.3-mile paths – one for walkers and runners and another for bicyclists.

There’s a new water playground for kids, an event stage and picnic area, plus a signature restaurant, the Kitchen Bistro, with indoor and outdoor seating that affords sunset views over the lake.

“No one else has something like we do sitting in the center of our city,” said Natalie Wilson, senior manager of visitor experience at the park. “It’s unique.”

Memphis has developed a good reputation among international travelers, many of whom are drawn here to explore the rich music history. Many of those people arrive in town with children in tow, Wilson says, and the city has done a good job of pointing tourists to the reimagined Shelby Farms Park.

In fact, since Heart of the Park was finished, boat and bike rentals and even the gift shop have proven “overwhelmingly popular,” said retain manager Dirk Kitterlin.

“The fact the lake expanded from 55 to 80 acres has helped,” he said. “And it’s helped that the event stage and the Kitchen Bistro are right on the lake.”

Said Wilson: “We can be a common space for everyone.”

“We’re a different operation than we once were. We’re a grander operation. We’re focusing on creature comforts and the details,” says Natalie Wilson with Shelby Farms Park. (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

To that point, the Visitor’s Center also offers the Kitchenette, a grab-and-go snack place as a much cheaper alternative to the full-service restaurant.

Andrews believes that the park is also drawing many new local visitors, but adds, “It’s hard to count people in the park because we don’t have a gate where we charge people to come in. And they’re not coming out to be surveyed, they’re coming out to play and have fun.”

Bike rentals, Kitterlin says, have proved popular as a way to access the Greenline but also as means to explore the park, including off-road on a mountain bike via the Tour De Wolf trail.

As always, Memphis had a brutal hot spell this summer and members of the Visitor Experience team used bikes and electric go-carts to reach guests with water.

“Hydration patrols,” Wilson said. “People loved that. We’re a different operation than we once were. We’re a grander operation. We’re focusing on creature comforts and the details.”

Recently, the park also offered an evening screening of the animated movie, “The Secret Life of Pets.” Hundreds turned out and the audience included more than families with young children.

“It was a date night,” Wilson said. “Some people just wanted to see a movie in the park at night.”

It’s all part of that panoramic vision for the park.

“You want it to be flexible enough it doesn’t feel like you’re telling people what to do,” Andrews said, adding that it’s not uncommon to hear people say that the park “doesn’t feel like Memphis.”

That kind of comment, Andrews adds, always leaves her with mixed feelings: “They mean it as a compliment, I think.”

Still, the long-term goal is to move beyond that – to a point that a massive, successful project such as this feels exactly like Memphis.

“I’ve been at this 11 years,” Andrews said. “And Memphis feels very different about itself than it did a decade ago. Things are changing. The more vibrant projects we have, and well-designed space in the public realm, the better our city’s self-esteem is going to be.”

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