MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis City Council recently spent nearly $600,000 to buy 24 posts to better secure Beale Street against a potential terrorist attack, according to purchasing contracts obtained by WREG.
“I have heard of cars running into big crowds and running over people,” said Mabel Carmona, visiting Memphis from Orlando.
Carmona and other tourists aren’t the only ones who think about a potential attack. Johnny Causley plays music on Beale almost every night.
“You never know when it’s gonna happen though. You have to be secure,” he said.
Car attacks have become more common in recent years in the U.S. and abroad. For example, a driver killed one woman during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and police said a drunk driver killed two people in March in New Orleans.
In fact, city officials commissioned a security study of Beale Street, which listed a “hostile vehicle attack or intrusion” as one of the most serious safety risks.
“It’s becoming a thing more prevalent around the world, people accidentally or intentionally drive thru crowds to try to injure or kill people,” said Jon Shivers, director of Beale Street for the Downtown Memphis Commission.
He showed us their latest upgrade: four sets of six bollards that block the street and can stop a speeding vehicle in its tracks.
They’ve already been installed in other cities like New Orleans and Las Vegas, where they’re permanently in place.
But on Beale Street, some businesses can only get deliveries through the front. So Memphis purchased sets of the sliding barriers that are open during the day and go into place blocking the street around 7 p.m.
“Depending on the crowd size we determine when to bring them in but it’s normally 2 to 3 a.m.,” Shivers said. “Being that we have so many people on the street on a weekend night we felt we had to get that addressed to prevent an act like that from happening.”
He added the street’s busiest and most dangerous hours happen between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. on Saturday night.
WREG has learned there’s a steep price for security. We obtained the contract for four sets of Matador-6 bollards, totaling $585,012.31 or around $24,000 per bollard.
“Can you put a price on Public Safety and human life on the street? I can’t,” Shivers said.
“If we didn’t have these and someone drove a van or a car full of explosives down here and killed hundreds or thousands of people, you’d be asking me, ‘Why didn’t you spend $600,000 to save thousands of lives?’” said Memphis City Council chair Kemp Conrad.
According to Conrad, all the money to pay for the bollards came from the Beale Street Bucks program, which created a small admission fee at varying times on Beale since 2016.
He also pointed to a study analyzing who visits Beale Street at night. According to data collected via IDs scanned at the entry point, the top zip codes of people visiting Beale Street are all people from Memphis. The top-three most popular zip codes include 38109, 38127 and 38116.
“We’re not spending people’s tax dollars on this. We are charging folks that come down to make these security upgrades,” Conrad said. “These are the little things that government does every day to keep Memphians safe.”
But some people they serve would disagree. Shalonda Taylor lives in South Memphis and comes to Beale to enjoy herself with friends almost every week. Unfortunately, she doesn’t always make the best memories.
“People, when they see someone running, it’s automatic you don’t see what’s going on. You just be running,” she said of the stampedes that have happened on Beale.
In fact, the security study showed nearly 30 stampedes took place between 2013 and 2018. The bollards won’t do anything to stop them.
“It’s a waste of money to me. I’d rather they have more police down here. If you see a police presence, it won’t be as much activity,” Taylor said. “Somebody can get out shooting, know what I’m saying. It takes police officers, their presence that’ll stop this violence out here.”
Still officials say you have to be prepared and they have other plans to address those concerns as well, including a new fence lining Handy Park to keep people from passing items through like guns.