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VOL. 11 | NO. 36 | Saturday, September 8, 2018

REI ‘Raises the Bar’ on Outdoor Recreation in Memphis

Special to The Memphis News

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REI’s new Memphis store is promoting local outdoor recreation areas in addition to the sales of its own camping and outdoor gear.

Chris Moore, a bike mechanic for REI, hangs one of the last mountain bikes on a display rack as he preps for the store's grand opening. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

The consumer co-op not only is donating $20,000 total to the Wolf River, Overton Park and Shelby Farms Park conservancies for trail restoration and other improvements, but is leading its nearly 50 employees to engage with and volunteer in the parks.

REI on Aug. 24 opened its 23,000-square-foot store in the Ridgeway Trace shopping center in East Memphis. That 5897 Poplar address is eight miles from Overton Park in Midtown and 5.4 miles from the heart of Shelby Farms Park, three miles from the Wolf River and 11 miles from the Mississippi River.

REI emphasized the store’s proximity to the Memphis parks and natural resources in its announcement of the store opening: “REI Memphis is conveniently located near the Mississippi River and Shelby Farms Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country.’’

“They kind of live their mission through the employees,’’ Angie Whitfield, marketing and communications manager for Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, said of REI. “They sent a team of probably 50 people on a Saturday in July. They worked all day building some new bridges, adding some different trail routes and clearing some (invasive) privet.’’

REI also sponsored free boat rentals at Hyde Lake boathouse for all park visitors during a recent weekend.

“It was wildly popular,’’ Whitfield recalled. “People love to come out and rent canoes, kayaks and paddleboards. We had a lot of people who have never rented a watercraft before. It was a great opportunity for them to come out and check out the park.’’

Anytime REI opens a store in a new city it partners with local nonprofits that work to protect natural spaces and encourage people to explore those spaces, said Annelise Danielson, the Memphis store manager.

“Being a cooperative, it’s so much more than transactional,’’ said Danielson. “We really try to develop those relationships with the community we’re in and hope to inspire more people to get outside and enjoy our wonderful environment.’’

Customers don’t have to be REI members to shop in the stores, but those who pay $20 for a lifetime membership get an annual dividend as well as special offers and discounts.

That Memphis already had 3,800 REI members was a factor in the co-op locating its 153rd store here. But other reasons include the city’s “amazing resources for people to go recreate in and use,’’ Danielson said.

“To have Shelby Farms so close, it’s an easy win for us to be able to partner with them and really promote what they are doing there, which is all things outside,’’ Danielson said.

Shelby Farms Park will use REI’s $5,000 grant to repair the Tour de Wolf Trail.

The 90-mile-long Wolf River, which flows through Shelby Farms Park, has its own conservancy. REI has formed a bond with that organization as well.

The co-op awarded $10,000 to the Wolf River Conservancy. The nonprofit will use the money to design a boat dock for canoes and kayaks on Raleigh’s 25-acre Epping Way Lake, to which a section of the Wolf River Trail will provide access.

“REI is about providing access to the great outdoors,’’ said Keith Cole, Wolf River Conservancy executive director. “We think REI and the Wolf River Conservancy have a lot in common in that objective. They provide products and tools to do that and we provide the programs and events to do that.’’

Danielson and some other REI employees have already floated parts of the river.

“We actually got to take a wonderful tour down the Lost Swamp section with some of their guides and it just goes to show how incredible this area is and how protected it is,’’ the store manager said.

She described the Lost Swamp section of the Wolf as “just stunning, so calm and peaceful. The wild hibiscus was in bloom. … It was the highlight of my summer besides the grand opening.’’

Danielson likened the Wolf River to a “secret gem.’’

“People don’t really think about outdoor recreation here in Memphis,’’ Danielson said. “But if you look hard enough and you talk to the right people here at REI, we’ll tell you all kinds of places to recreate in.’’

REI employees also toured Overton Park, which is receiving a $5,000 REI grant to repair some trail bridges.

“They initiated the contact,’’ said Melissa McMasters, communications director for Overton Park Conservancy.

REI representatives may lead workshops to teach Overton Park volunteers how to maintain trails and make other improvements, she said.

“They seem to want to be involved in the community and be excited about doing volunteer projects. …

“We’re excited to have another company in town committed to helping fund outdoor recreation and maintenance,’’ McMasters said, adding the park also has a good relationship with the locally owned business, Outdoor Inc.

Cole also expressed appreciation for the contributions Outdoor Inc. has made in promoting and supporting outdoor recreation.

But having REI in town “raises the bar," he said. “It’s more than retail. They are all about doing training classes and teaching people how to do things correctly. We’ve even had conversations about our guides coming (to the store) and doing instruction.’’

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