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VOL. 133 | NO. 143 | Thursday, July 19, 2018

Big Attraction Not Key to Remaking Mud Island River Park, N.Y. Expert Tells Memphis Group

By Bill Dries

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Mud Island River Park doesn’t need a master plan or a new big attraction, the former director of Governors Island in New York City told a Memphis group this week.

Leslie Koch said she had neither during her tenure as president and chief executive of the Trust for Governors Island, the organization created to manage the former military base that was turned over to the city of New York as park land.

She was the featured speaker Tuesday, July 17, at the Urban M discussion series hosted by the Memphis River Parks Partnership at Beale Street Landing.

A plan for Mud Island River Park doesn’t have to include a big attraction or a master plan, says the former director of New York’s Governors Island. (Daily News/Bill Dries)


Governors Island is accessible only by boat. Koch worked to draw crowds to the island with free boat fares that were subsidized by the city and donors and various activities.

She noted that the city parks department was essential in cooperating with some undertakings that may have run afoul of bureaucratic red tape. A festival of carousels was one such event that drew a diverse crowd but ultimately was a one-time event because it lost money. But Koch said that while it and other one-time events weren’t a financial success, they were successful in drawing diverse crowds to the park.

Those crowds in turn got the attention of planners of other events.

“An attraction that is like planted somewhere doesn’t usually bring people. People want to be excited,” she told the group of 50 gathered at the landing. “Making places like Mud and Governors Islands messy – that was actually our goal. … Cities are messy. They are supposed to be messy. They are diverse, multi-racial. … We didn’t have an attraction wanting to come to us, but I didn’t miss it.”

Koch said she later turned down a Sponge Bob Square Pants Hotel that was fully financed.

Koch visited the river park earlier Tuesday and noticed some items in disrepair or that might need replacing. But she said that shouldn’t stop the MRPP, whose jurisdiction includes Mud Island, from moving ahead with activities.

“You can spend all of your time worrying about the tiles but if you provide something great for people to do, they will look past that,” she said. “For me, spaces that are filled with people having fun – they are going to look the other way.”

The MRPP has done just that with the new season of the park that began in the spring. It has included quick fixes to the pedestrian walkway from Front Street onto the island and a fountain on the southern end of the Riverwalk that now allows for wading in the water.

Koch said her goal on Governors Island was “to find a way to get New Yorkers to come to this place.” That makes such attractions “a real place” that visitors also want to go, she said.

Carol Coletta, president of the MRPP, described the river park as “one of our sleepy assets” and the attempts to try new things as part of an exploration of ideas – some that will remain and others that will be one-time things.

“Mud Island’s future is very unresolved,” she said.

Koch’s visit is part of trying to resolve that.

Paul Cummings, president of Strategic Adventures of Littleton, Colorado – a company that develops and operates “adventure attractions” – also visited Mud Island on Tuesday and focused on outdoor recreation and experiences.

“It’s a nice shift coming from Downtown Memphis and a very short distance away from these natural elements. It feels remote. But it’s really not,” Cummings said.

“Most of the time when we are dealing with adventure recreation, we are in a forest somewhere, we’re in the trees, we’re in a park that’s removed from something else,” he said. “Just being this close to the Mississippi River is a really unique setting.”

Strategic Adventures is not the first company of its kind to take a look at such attractions in the river park. Memphis-based RVC Outdoor Destinations pitched a transformation of the park to Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and the Riverfront Development Corp., the riverfront management group under contract with the city that became Memphis River Parks Partnership earlier this year.

Strickland put the request for proposals on hold in 2016.

The city’s riverfront concept plan unveiled in July 2017 includes plans for an aquarium on the south end of Mud Island near a pedestrian bridge across the Wolf River Harbor to a relocated Memphis Brooks Museum of Art to be built on the riverfront between Union and Monroe avenues. The aquarium proposal is an adapted version of a proposal pitched years ago for the Pyramid before the city settled on a Bass Pro Shops with other attractions to breathe new life into the former arena.

“We’re looking at the potential financial ramification of putting adventure recreation onto Mud Island,” Cummings said of Strategic Adventures’ involvement. “The numbers will tell the story once we get to that point. We’re at the very beginning stages of about a month-long process to really determine what makes sense to do or not do.”

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