VOL. 11 | NO. 37 | Saturday, September 15, 2018
A New Benchmark
By K. DENISE JENNINGS
Shelby Farms Park is gearing up for the second annual Mempho Music Festival and another chance to showcase the country’s largest urban park to a diverse and wide-reaching audience.
Memphis’ newest music festival is expecting a crowd of 20,000 on Oct. 6 and 7, which is impressive for a park two years out from a $70 million renovation embarked upon in 2010 with a distant vision for such an event.
The master plan for the park was designed not only for people to recreate and relax, but as a place to build community, and a music festival can be a big part of that, said Jen Andrews, executive director of Shelby Farms Park. Andrews has always had a larger vision for the park as a place where the community could come together and take ownership and pride in the best that Memphis has to offer.
Enter another visionary, native Memphian Diego Winegardner, founder of Mempho Fest and CEO of Big River Presents, which is putting on the festival. Winegardner grew up in Memphis and now lives outside of New York City where his day job is in finance and investment management. A couple of years ago on a trip home to Memphis he met some old friends for a bike ride at Shelby Farms Park.
“I was completely blown away,” Winegardner said. “The sun was setting on Hyde Lake, and I had this lightning-bolt moment of how special it would be to bring a world-class music festival to this site.
I thought about Memphis’ place in the annals of American music as the birthplace of blues, soul and R&B and the hip hop scene that we have here.
“If you think about the labels … Sun, Stax, Royal…I was exposed to all of that growing up, and seeing B.B. King on Beale Street was just normal,” he said. “I didn’t appreciate it until I was gone. I started to get really nostalgic about my hometown.”
Winegardner is a music enthusiast who has been to most of the notable music festivals in the U.S. and many around the world. He had the resources and connections to realize his dream. Last year, the first Mempho Fest kicked off with great success with 10,000 in attendance for two days of concerts featuring a variety of bands from different music genres.
“I’ve always been a big fan of (Memphis) and its people and a big defender of the city and its history,” Winegardner said. “This music festival was born out of my passion for music and my passion for the city of Memphis.”
When Winegardner first met with Andrews two years ago to pitch his idea, she caught his vision right away.
He approached it cautiously and wanted to understand how to protect the park and still give people a good experience, she said. “We like working with Diego,” she said. “They care about the park, and like us, have a big, bold vision, and they hired a professional team who knew how to put on a safe and fun event.”
This year’s festival will feature two days of multi-genre music headlined by Grammy Award-winning artist and hip-hop superstar Post Malone as well as Beck, Phoenix, NAS and Janelle Monae. Local talent like Lucero and alternative Mac deMarco also will perform, and there will be a special tribute to Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios featuring the label’s past and present stars.
Sunday will feature performances by crowd favorites like George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and Stones Throw, Chuck Laevell’s Rolling Stones’ backer band.
The festival will not only expand in attendance, but will add a larger culinary and craft beer presence in addition to on-site camping and VIP and super-VIP experiences.
“We’re trying to create more than just music on a stage,” said Winegardner, who also created a nonprofit arm called Mempho Matters that will partner with organizations that line-up with the vision of the festival, such as Oceanic Global Foundation, #BringYourSoul, Learn to Rock and the Memphis Area Women’s Council’s “Memphis Says NO MORE” campaign.
As part of Mempho’s partnership with the Oceanic Global Foundation, the festival has a 100 percent waste-free goal, which will start with its no straw policy.
“A best practice environmental policy is important to help make sure the park is as pristine when we leave as when we showed up,” said Winegardner.
The partnership promoting the Memphis Area Women’s Council’s “NO MORE” campaign is to make sure that Mempho Fest’s female attendees feel safe. Winegardner, who has a teenage daughter, knows stories about the lack of safety for females at other events, prompting him to take up the cause.
“In this day and age, you really have to take a stand and make it an institutional part of our way of doing things,” he said.
Money raised through Mempho Matters will also benefit the Memphis community through contributions to musical education in the form of free tickets for students and teachers to attend the festival as well as instruments and money for music education in local schools.
Last year, Mempho Matters gave away 2,000 tickets to students and teachers.
“We want to build bridges into the community and be as inclusive as possible,” Winegardner said. “We want to educate the children and the youth of tomorrow about the history of Memphis musically and create a sense of pride for its citizens while also attracting new people and adding another chapter to Memphis’ long, rich history.”
Andrews is optimistic about the growth of Mempho Fest this year, projecting double the attendance in its second year as well as adding 400 weekend camping permits. Those include primitive camping, RV hookups and glamping.
“The camping option is an important part of festival culture, and one of the great benefits of the park is its tremendous scale, which can accommodate that,” Andrews said.
But the plan is to grow Mempho Fest slowly, she said.
“We learned a lot the first year, and we’re applying the learning to this year’s festival,” she said. “We have a strong plan for safely managing the crowd. We want this to be a world-class festival.”
Big River Productions and Winegardner have an undisclosed agreement with Shelby Farms Park, and both entities hope to continue the relationship.
“I’m hoping that Mempho Fest will become a long-term asset for the city of Memphis,” Winegardner said.
Music remains a big driver of visitors to Memphis — 56 percent of leisure visitors come to the city for something related to music, said Kevin Kane, president and CEO of Memphis Tourism, formerly called the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re supporters of (Mempho Fest),” he said. “We believe in it and want to see it grow. Music festivals have a big impact on the economy. The more events we have based in music the better, and we think it’s great to utilize Shelby Farms in this way.”
Mempho Fest is the biggest event on the horizon at Shelby Farms Park, but it isn’t far from the only thing happening there. Favorite events from years past are still on the calendar and there are many new offerings.
As part of a federal grant through Project Diabetes, the park offers free fitness classes five days a week that are open to all members of the community. Classes include yoga with a professional instructor, kids yoga, kids karate, Thai Chi, and strength and balance classes. No fees or registration required. Just show up to the park at the scheduled time and join the classes.
“A big barrier to quality fitness classes is money,” said Andrews, who has been thrilled to see people of all ages from all over the community taking part in the classes. The same grant provides funds for school field trips to the park from more distant ZIP codes, touching parts of the community that might not be able to come otherwise. The field trips are educationally consistent with classroom curriculum students are being taught at the schools.
“I really want them to leave here knowing that the park belongs to them,” said Andrews.
The park also has events catering to the adult crowd. On Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sept. 29, patrons can visit Park Life is Brew-tiful Food Truck and Beer Cart sponsored by Meddlesome Brewing Co. In October, Shelby Farms Park will host Boos and Booze, an age 21-and-up camping adventure with a limited number of tickets available, and on Oct. 13 there will be a double feature spooky movie.
The park is a perennial favorite of school cross-country teams throughout the region as well. Cross-country meets held there are often the first exposure to the park for many, Andrews said.
Other offerings include:
• Go Ape, the outdoor adventure park and ropes course
• Woodland Discovery playground
• Boat and bike rentals
• Stables and horseback riding
• A BMX track
• An off-leash dog park
• Community garden
• Miles of mountain biking and walking trails, and green spaces for anything from a picnic to a family reunion are open for use (www.shelbyfarmspark.org)
Popular events like Starry Nights bring many visitors to the park around the holidays. A pro tip from Andrews — if you buy a park membership, which starts at $35, you get to skip the Starry Nights line, among other perks.
The goal was to design not just aesthetics, but programming to reflect the diversity that makes the city special.
“I think that’s one of the most important things a park or public space can do,” Andrews said. “It’s a place to come together for free, as equals across boundaries and barriers on property that we all own, and create strong social ties that make the city vibrant,” she said. “There’s so much in our lives these days that divides us, and parks and public spaces are intended to bring people together.”
Part of the reason to build such a high-quality park was to raise the collective self-esteem of Memphis.
“One of the things I love most is the weekend after Thanksgiving ... seeing people bringing their families and showing off the park. It really speaks to the value of public space,” Andrews said.
The rest of the world has been watching as the largest urban park with 45,000 acres has transformed, because of the scope of the project, according to Andrews.
“This opportunity doesn’t exist in other cities, and because of that we were able to engage world-class park and public space experts,” she said. “Now people from other parks come here to see what we’ve done. We’ve come full circle. We’ve set a new benchmark.”