By John Branston
Memphis has been on a sports and parks building spree for the past 20 years as it reinvents itself as a tourism town. State and local government and rich philanthropists have changed the image – and the reality – of much of the city from riverfront to Shelby Farms.
How is it going? Here’s a quick overview, but first a few words about Big Deals. They’re hard to get right – harder than Chinese trigonometry, harder than raising children, harder than running a successful restaurant. Think The Pyramid, before and after it became Bass Pro. Think Mud Island River Park, conceived in the 1970s, opened in 1980s, hailed as the answer to Memphis “turning its back on the river.”
Memories of Mud Island park: Amphitheater concerts, monorail, swimming pool, museum, playground, airboat rides, boat rentals, bluegrass busker concerts, the Memphis Belle, free admission and parking, paid admission and parking, a bridge to downtown, restaurants, snack bars, history, a riverwalk model to name a few. Today, along with the cool river model, it is a platform for a flag pole, a MEMPHIS sign, and a reboot.
So, in a seasonal spirit of gratitude and patience, ten more recent Big Deals.
Overton Park makeover. Hail George Cates and the conservancy. Settled the greensward zoo overflow parking scrap without bloodshed, detailed the playgrounds and trails, and made the golf course a “must play” for linksters like the foursomes that crowded the Huey’s Earthquake 25th Year Anniversary (no record of Memphis quake around 1998 but no matter) this week.
Fairgrounds and Liberty Park. I was a skeptic when I saw all those empty indoor basketball courts and read about the city debt burden. Then I went over this week and watched the Yeshiva boys high school basketball nationals with teams from New York, California, and points in between. When you see that many kippahs on a court in Memphis someone is definitely thinking outside the box. At the same time as a volleyball tournament and a Black College fair. Somebody spread the word about Memphis and closed the deals.
Leftwich Tennis Center and Audubon Park makeover. Too soon to tell; the grand opening is November 11th and if you are not a tennis player you might be surprised at the size of this thing and the number of courts. The trick will be to get out-of-towners and out-of-staters to come here, lest it become the South’s biggest pickleball center. Most of the funding came from donors so taxpayers won’t be on the hook as they may be for Liberty Park bonds. Tennis is tricky. After Leftwich, the biggest and best-attended facilities in the Southern sectional for team tennis are in Murfreesboro, Mobile, and Dothan, Alabama. Nashville doesn’t chase team tennis, and Knoxville gets it with scattered so-so courts and a long drive for Memphis teams.
Crosstown Concourse. The problem with a really big space is empty space. I love Crosstown because I live near it and it is my elder-care center. A mixed bag of people, music, festivals, an outdoor pool, fitness and casual meet-ups, but I wonder if the businesses are going to make it without rent subsidies when a pizza place and the burger place have closed. Servers who make a few bucks an hour depend on tips, and that means lots of customers.
Tom Lee Park and the cruise boat dock and ramp (often replaced by the no-nonsense fishing boat ramp and shuttle bus to downtown at the north end of Greenbelt Park). If my mailbox full of cruise brochures is any indication and the river rises, that biz may improve on the 95 landings predicted for this year.
Memphis Botanic Gardens. Ten, ten ten. Never fails to impress.
Auto Zone Park. Prime example of the Hot New Thing fizzling out. Full-house exhibition opening years ago when St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire was a big deal and not a big cheat. But minor-league baseball and minor-league soccer will forever be minor league.
Football stadium. I don’t get it. I thought the green-it-clean-it and faux grand entry solution and Tiger Lane were enough for a junky old fairgrounds and an off-campus stadium hosting a team without a major conference affiliation.
(Shelby Farms belongs on this list but Smart City’s Tom Jones has written extensively about it.)
The Lessons: Don’t over promise. Fish in new waters. Learn from pickleball. Get private donor support along with tax money. Always be selling. Don’t preach to the choir.
John Branston was a reporter and columnist in Memphis for 40 years.