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VOL. 132 | NO. 216 | Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Mud Island Garage Ruled Out As Convention Center Hotel Site

By Bill Dries

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The city of Memphis continues to field proposals for a second convention center hotel Downtown, but it won’t be on the city-owned site of the Mud Island parking garage, which had been at the center of at least one proposal pitched to City Hall for such a hotel in the last year.

Kevin Kane

“We’ve moved off of that,” said Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau president Kevin Kane on the WKNO/Channel TV program “Behind The Headlines.”

“The potential legal battle to justify or figure out if the city could go on top of already existing parking for a hotel is too daunting of a task,” he said of the conditions established by founders of the city nearly 200 years ago for public use of the “promenade” area, which includes the parking garage on Front Street at Poplar Avenue.

“We don’t have that much time,” Kane said. “That’s a multi-year argument probably.”

Behind The Headlines, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

A new convention center hotel close to, but not connected to the Memphis Cook Convention Center that has at least 500 rooms and meeting and conference room space of its own would be in addition to the existing Sheraton convention center hotel.

Kane and Downtown Memphis Commission interim president Jennifer Oswalt said there are other possible sites for such a hotel. The public emergence of that site is possibly Downtown’s biggest question mark and is certain to trigger more changes elsewhere in the landscape, including the impact it would have on broader plans for Downtown redevelopment.

Riverfront redevelopment plans announced in July got a catalytic boost two months later when the Brooks Museum of Art board confirmed that it is talking with City Hall about relocating from Overton Park to a riverfront site on Front Street between Union and Monroe avenues.

The city’s plan links such a museum to Mud Island River Park via a pedestrian bridge across the city harbor to the south end of the park where planned aquariums might be located.

Jennifer Oswalt

A city fire station and a parking garage are currently on the 2-acre city-owned block that is the potential Brooks site.

Oswalt said she was already spending a lot of her time considering parking options for such a city plan before the Brooks made its decision. One facet of the city plan would see AutoZone moving out of the lease it has for surface parking on Wagner Street near its headquarters. The parking area would then become a public space with better access onto a pedestrian-only stretch of Beale Street to Riverside Drive.

“We’ve looked at other options along the riverfront. We’re trying to preserve our riverfront and get it (parking) further off and explore other options for transportation to and from that,” Oswalt said. “It won’t be forgotten. People won’t lose all their parking. AutoZone does need to figure out their needs. … Right now it’s a puzzle.”

Kane said the renovation of the convention center has grown from a $60 million re-skinning of the exterior of the Downtown landmark to a reconfiguration that takes it “well beyond” the original dollar figure.

“What happened, fortunately, is the city administration took a deep dive in the long-term projections for the Tourism Development Zone along with the hotel-motel lodging tax,” Kane said. “They realized there was more capacity than they had ever anticipated to begin with.”

Those two sources of revenue – the tax on lodging visitors and the sales tax revenue captured within the Downtown TDZ – are financing the convention center renovation that Kane says is a “transformation” scheduled to open in two years – September 2019.

“You would not know you are in the Memphis Cook Convention Center,” he said of the plan. “That is how transformative it’s going to be. It’s going to have all of the amenities you expect in a 21st century convention facility – hotel quality, lots of break out meeting space, lots of casual areas for people to informally meet. That’s the world we live in today. Lots of connections to the outdoors.

“There’s going to be for the first time beautiful outdoor vistas of the bridge, Bass Pro, of the riverfront and the might Mississippi River. … It’s really going to be a destination,” Kane said.

Oswalt hopes it also spurs private development investments. She is vetting hotel proposals.

“Hoteliers are planning a lot more meeting space, more than a normal hotel would have,” she said. “I think that there are just enough people who are interested in capitalizing on all the activity that’s happening at various ends of our Downtown and decided to support the concept plan. There’s just finally enough activity where I think a lot of that may happen. The pieces are not so far apart anymore.”

Kane points to the Bicentennial Gateway project that takes in nine blocks of the Pinch District between the Pyramid and the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, with St. Jude owning four of the nine blocks.

“The Pinch gets a little bit of a bad rap because it fell into a kind of a no man’s land for a while. That’s because the Pyramid was dark for a decade,” he said. “Now you’ve got Bass Pro that’s attracting 2 million people a year. And St. Jude has actually bought some of the real estate going into the Pinch District. What we have to develop really, within the Pinch District, is not that big of a footprint.”

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