Mud Island stuck in the mud? The park’s past, present and future

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MEMPHIS, Tenn -- For portion of two centuries, it's been the topic of a lingering question for Memphians: what can be done to generate life, dollars, and tourists into one of the city's most spectacular, yet underused and under-visited pieces of real estate, Mud Island River Park?

In 1982, WREG cameras were rolling when Mud Island opened to great fanfare.

It was touted as the $63 million attraction that would forever transform the image of Downtown Memphis.

The park and its monorail even co-starred, if you will, in the prominent chase scene in the 1993 Tom Cruise movie "The Firm."

Benny Lendermon is the president of the Riverfront Development Corporation, which oversees Mud Island.

"The tourists want to ride the monorail because of the kind of neat feature for them," Lendermon said.

Like an aging movie star, Mud Island's luster has faded.

Otis Sanford is WREG's political commentator.

"People have moved onto other things and now we got Bass Pro at the Pyramid, and people go to FedExForum, Beale Street, and nobody is thinking about Mud Island," Sanford said.

Chef Gary Williams owns the nearby Dejavu restaurant.

Like his gumbo, Williams said Mud Island should be one of the key ingredients to lure tourists year round to Downtown Memphis and help nearby businesses.

"We need to bring people this way to downtown and Main Street. We need the help. We need the help," Williams said.

Thirty-four years after its opening, this is Mud Island today.

The once revered river walk, along with the Mississippi River Museum, and Amphitheater and River Terrace restaurant have seen better days.

Kevin Kane is president of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau and chairman of the Mud Island Reuse Committee.

"The various brick and mortar facilities over there haven't had much attention in 30 years. Do you tear them down, just to get a better view of the river? Do you renovate them? " Kane said.

Over the years, there hasn't been a lack of ideas about what to do with Mud Island. Some range from putting a casino here to building a land bridge on, but to this day they remain just ideas.

When it opened, it attracted about a million visitors. It now averages around 175,000 to 200,000 annually costing taxpayers about a million dollars a year to operate.

but Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland says the city can't afford to redevelop Mud Island on its own.

"We don't want to spend any city money doing the redevelopment because of the other problems that we have. We have crime, we have poverty, retention of police officer and firefighters," Strickland said.

Lendermon says the RDC is not asking the city to foot the bill.

"We are not going to the City of Memphis saying give us $20 million, we are saying we need to bring in a partner who has dollars, change the look of Mud Island, make it entrepreneurial," Lendermon said.

The RDC has heard proposals from four local developers and one out-of-town developer with their ideas ranging from water parks, zip lines, resort hotels, and a refurbished amphitheater.

Even the newly opened Bass Pro at the Pyramid wants to get involved even if it didn't bring any concrete ideas to the city.

So, what will it take for any of these plans to gain traction?

"I think I've said this from the beginning, it's going to be he who writes the biggest check will resonate," Kane said.

City councilman Berlin Boyd says the final deal will have to be air tight to protect taxpayers.

"In a way, that won't cost our taxpayers additional dollars. We can not afford to have another Beale Street Landing with cost overruns." Boyd said.

The hope is to turn the aging Mud Island River Park, a park with an identity crisis into a 21st-century tourist destination that's fitting for the riverfront.

For now, the Mud Island Reuse Committee will review the proposals and make a recommendation to the RDC board, and if approved, it would then go before the mayor and the City Council.