MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Dozens of downtown business owners say they support plans to renovate Tom Lee Park, even if it means changes to the Memphis in May festival. More than 50 business owners sent a letter to Mayor Jim Strickland to let him know they want the $60 million transformation unveiled by the Memphis River Parks Partnership to become a reality.
"We believe a revitalized riverfront that is activated 365 days per year is better for our businesses, better for Downtown and better for all Memphians," the letter states. "Few cities have been blessed with such a stunning riverfront at its doorstep and even fewer have been given an opportunity to transform it in such a monumental and positive way."
WMC Action News 5 sat down with Chef Michael Patrick, owner of Rizzo’s Diner on South Main, on Friday, Aug. 23 to talk about the letter. He’s one of the business leaders who signed it.
"I have a vested interest in the growth of downtown Memphis," he said. "I've lived and worked here for 21 years. Improving the park, bringing people down here, more than just a few times a year is a big deal for anyone who owns a business."
The Memphis Restaurant Association, Memphis Metropolitan Hotel and Lodging Association and the Beale Street Merchants Association said in July the hospitality groups support improving Tom Lee Park, but not at the expense of Memphis in May having to move or reduce in size.
"If Memphis in May events are relocated or restructured," said MRA president Ernie Mellor, "it could have a devastating effect on downtown businesses."
Memphis in May officials say this year’s music fest, barbecue competition and other events had a record $149 million economic impact on the City of Memphis. They worry a park redesign will shrink the festival or force it to relocate.
"Memphis in May also wants to see an improved Tom Lee Park," said MIM VP of Marketing Robert Griffin. "We have been working through mediation with Memphis River Parks Partnership and Mayor Strickland's administration to ensure the improvements will protect the viability of the festival's events and their substantial economic impact on Memphis."
But Aldo Dean, owner of Bardog Tavern, Aldo's Pizza Pies and Slider Inn, told WMC Action News 5 "I hate to think that all the joys of Memphis are relegated to just one month in the springtime. I'd rather see my chosen city benefit from the yearlong activity that a single month's revenue can't hope to match. The re-imagination of the riverfront seeks to deliver it from the dormancy of mediocrity."
And Andy Ticer, owner of restaurants Catherine and Mary's and The Gray Canary added, "We need this park to happen. A re-envisioned Tom Lee Park affirms our investments in Downtown and helps our businesses and Memphis continue to move forward."
Majestic Grille owner Patrick Reilly thinks Memphis in May organizers need to be flexible and ready to adapt to change.
“The revised timeline,” he said, referring to the ongoing mediation between MIM and MRPP pushing the original start date for construction back several months, “ensures Memphis in May almost two years to plan the evolution of the festival to the new space and a new era.”
It's an era that Chef Patrick can't wait to see arrive.
"I don't think the improvements they want to do are going to hurt the city," he said, "or hurt Memphis in May or hurt BBQ fest. I think, if anything, it'll improve the overall scale of Memphis 365 days a year."
MRPP will have to submit a final park design to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get permit approval for construction. Built by the Corps, Tom Lee Park was created to control bluff erosion and guide traffic along the Mississippi River. Any changes to the park must be green-lighted by the Corps.
As it stands now, Mayor Strickland says Memphis in May will take place in the park in 2020, then relocate in 2021 while the park is under renovations. He says the city’s signature festival will return to its home in Tom Lee Park in 2022.