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VOL. 132 | NO. 209 | Friday, October 20, 2017

Lendermon Retires As Riverfront Plans Evolve

By Bill Dries

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Benny Lendermon was familiar with the controversy that comes with plans for the city’s riverfront before the Riverfront Development Corp. started in 2000 and he became its founding president.


As the city’s public works director, Lendermon oversaw the expansion of Tom Lee Park and the Bluffwalk along the bluff above the park.

The Bluffwalk caused protests, with several critics of the project camping out in magnolia trees atop the bluff. As it turns out, they weren’t the magnolia trees that were taken down for the project.

Lendermon has talked about how the decisions he’s made about the future of the city’s riverfront have cost him friendships.

So as plans for the riverfront reached a high point Tuesday, Oct. 17, with renderings of a Mud Island River Park featuring two aquariums and a pedestrian bridge from the southern end of the park to a new Brooks Museum site, Lendermon’s letter to the RDC board announcing his retirement effective in April took a while to surface.

And Lendermon says there is a link between those plans and his departure.

“Things are moving forward. But to make all of this happen, it’s a huge undertaking,” Lendermon told The Daily News. “It’s going to take lots of different things, including different and additional staff, and I think with me turning 66 I certainly wasn’t going to stay to the end of that. It’s really better for the organization and myself that I give them another six months and we can get things organized a little bit more and the new staff can come together in a way that it can stay together for hopefully a lengthy period of time.”

The Brooks’ possible move is a catalyst for a larger riverfront plan that Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has said from the outset will be done a piece at a time as money is raised or financing secured. That means other pieces of the plan are in play, including some that probably aren’t in the current design.

Last month, Lendermon told City Council members the parking lot on Wagner Place across from Waterford Plaza, just a bit further south on the riverfront, could become a public space.

That would depend on AutoZone coming up with a solution to replace the parking spaces it now rents for its employees on Front Street, just south of the fire station and parking garage that coule become the Brooks’ new site.

“They are looking at doing something different and putting their parking somewhere else,” he told the council. “If they ever pull the trigger on that, what we’d like to do is reclaim it as public space.”

With that change, another part of the riverfront concept plan could move closer to reality. It would involve changing the slope of the land so it’s more of an entrance on a segment of Beale Street between Wagner and Riverside that could be a pedestrian plaza.

All of the plans come with price tags that could change as pieces of the design affect one another.

The city estimates a museum and Monroe Avenue plaza leading to the proposed pedestrian bridge would together cost $84.4 million, with tourism development zone revenues accounting for $20 million. The remaining $64.4 million would be raised from private and/or philanthropic sources.

The bridge plus Mud Island River Park improvements not including the aquarium project is pegged at a $35 million undertaking – $25 million from TDZ sales tax revenue and $10 million from private development or philanthropic sources.

The aquarium and its freshwater institute have a $121.2 million price tag – the second-highest dollar amount of the seven components for the riverfront outlined Tuesday, with the most expensive being the $150 million renovation of the Memphis Cook Convention Center.

The aquarium is the only components that would use bonds to finance debt, to the tune of $68 million. Another $10 million would come from TDZ revenue and $43.2 million from private development or philanthropic sources.

The combined Mud Island price estimate – aquarium, pedestrian bridge, amphitheater update and other improvements – comes in at $156.2 million, most of that in bonds, followed by private development or philanthropic money and then TDZ revenue.

The renderings, public talk of the plans and the private talks to strike a deal all create excitement and even some momentum.

But the cost estimates city Housing and Community Development director Paul Young gave during his PowerPoint presentation Tuesday suggest the riverfront push probably is going to mean more aggressive fundraising efforts by the city. That is in its approach to donors and investors who would also be involved in development of the areas.

Then-Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton created the RDC in 2000 to manage the city’s riverfront through one agency instead of several city divisions. Mud Island River Park, the cobblestones, Tom Lee Park and Beale Street Landing all fall under its purview.

“No one remembers what the bluffs, Downtown parks or Riverside Drive looked like before Benny and the RDC,” said Dorchelle Spence, vice president of the RDC.

During Lendermon’s tenure, the city began building Beale Street Landing to accommodate the overnight river cruise industry, but the project drifted and the industry collapsed twice before roaring back to life in 2012 as the landing opened and became the docking location for several revived cruise lines and the home port for the American Queen.

As Strickland began his tenure as mayor in 2016, the RDC began playing a more visible role at the head of the accelerated move to a riverfront development plan announced this July and a more coordinated approach to build the support necessary to fund the elements of the proposal.

“I think we pushed really hard the last two years to get the organization and more than the organization – the board – in a good place in common mind of what needs to be done and to be enthusiastically supportive and willing to do the fundraising and the other issues that need to be done to make some of these things happen,” Lendermon said. “It just was a good breaking point. If you stay any longer you almost need to stay two or three years to get some of these projects done.”

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