Major plans for the Memphis Riverfront, but will state funding and Confederate statues be an issue?

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The downtown Memphis riverfront — for years, the front door to the Bluff City has been described as beautiful and breathtaking.

But some Memphians such as Ashlee Tierney say that front door hasn't changed very much in decades and could use a much-needed upgrade.

"Downtown, the riverfront is beautiful. The Pyramid, the Memphis bridge is an absolutely stunning silhouette against the sky, but it is a little stagnant," Tierney said.

Inside Cafe Eclectic in nearby Harbor Town, coffee is brewed, lattes served and business is steady.

Tierney manages the coffee shop and imagines what a revitalized riverfront could mean for Memphians and tourists.

"Anything that would be family activity would be definitely helpful to bring people, not just out-of-towners, but Memphians into the downtown area," Tierney said.

Memphis city leaders appear to be showing a united front for dramatic changes along the riverfront. One of them is Mayor Jim Strickland.

"I think our downtown has made tremendous strides in the last 40 years, but I think there's room for even more things, better things," Strickland said.

Take for example making the Mud Island River Park better. It opened in 1982, but in recent years it appears stuck in the mud and not attracting many tourists.

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis would like to see changes.

"Mud Island is a valued asset that hasn't been realized for its potential. We need to take that opportunity to develop that because that would be huge tourist attraction," Parkinson said.

City planning new riverfront

Last year the city unveiled its Memphis Riverfront Concept by a New York and Chicago architecture firm called Studio Gang.

It calls for taking a six-mile area from MLK Park all the way to Green Belt Park and develop it into a one-of-a-kind amenity featuring adventure parks, play areas and restaurants.

Benny Lendermon is the executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation.

"I think this community from both the political side and citizen side, I think there's more awareness of the importance of downtown Memphis and the riverfront in particular," Lendermon said. The concept says one way to attract people is by building a new multi-million dollar freshwater aquarium at Mud Island.

"It would be great to have that on Mud Island and get 600,000, 700,000 thousand people visiting Mud Island to go that aquarium," Strickland said.

To get visitors to Mud Island, a proposed pedestrian bridge across Wolf River Harbor would be built.

Berlin Boyd is chairman of the Memphis City Council.

"Creating a land bridge to take you to the Mud Island area, which connects Mud Island, but to the Pinch District, therefore you have the movement, the momentum and the traction that we need," Boyd said.

One of the most ambitious parts of the riverfront plan involves the 101-year-old Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and moving it to Downtown out of Midtown Memphis.

Dr. Emily Neff is the museum's executive director.

"It's no secret we've been having problems and still have some problems in our current home, which we love," Neff said

The Brooks would become the anchor on the Fourth Bluff. That's on Front Street where the fire station headquarters and a neighboring parking garage are now located.

"Art museums are for all people. I think we have a chance to be a national model to be a truly diverse art museum and it's something art museums have tried to be for a very long time and some ways having done a great job and working hard at that and I think in Memphis, we have a chance to really lead the way. It's totally transformative for this museum. but it was great for the whole city that transformative part is really appealing to us," Neff said.

Of course, a project like the Riverfront won't be cheap, especially when the city has other financial needs and priorities, and then there's a battle that could be brewing far beyond the bluffs.

"Let me be very clear, I don't want to use the budget that we pay for fire, police and roads to pay for these extras," Strickland said.

Could the state hold up TDZ funds?

A lot of private dollars would be needed to pay for the project. The state would also have to sign off on the plan and the use of state funds from the Tourism Development Zone or TDZ.

But what could potentially haunt this project are two ghosts, so to speak, from Memphis' past: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis, and the issue of Confederate statues.

"One thing we are hoping even though the city of Memphis did remove those monuments, the one thing we are hoping is that the state will allow us the expansion of the TDZ. We are waiting and that will take place this year. Hopefully, they won't hold a grudge and deny our application," Boyd said.

Last year, the city found a legal loophole and sold Health Sciences Park and Memphis Park to Memphis Greenspace and in December it quickly removed the Confederate statues. Now the move didn't quite cause a civil war, but it sparked a legislative war of words from several east Tennessee lawmakers apparently taking aim at Memphis with new legislation.

One bill would withhold funding from any city that sells statues, and another bill would allow the state to seize monuments and force a city to cover the state's expenses.

"Most people agree the removal of the statues was an extremely positive event. I think it's not seen in the same light as the legislature because there are so many positive things need to be occurring here and we hope thy can continue," Lendermon said.

As Memphis braces for potential fallout regarding monuments from its past, it's also looking towards its future with a new horizon for the riverfront that could open the city's front door to other opportunities.

"I think anything we can do from the level that will benefit our city, I am all for it. I think our delegation has seen a more united effort as of late and make sure we have those things that create an economic catalyst for the city of Memphis and Shelby County," Parkinson said.

"I think pieces of the puzzle have to fit together to make it big," Lendermon said.

"You have the Brooks and you have the environment where you could have parks, you have more walkability, apartments, more homes, more restaurants and the list goes on and on," Boyd said.

"I just want more family friendly things for Memphis to do, I think that's what it's missing," Tierney said.