MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis In May sent a letter to barbecue cooking championship team members Monday asking for feedback on where that part of the festival should move — to Liberty Park or another venue, “even if it means moving outside of Memphis proper.” It also asks teams if they plan to quit competing.
Now, Memphis Tourism officials are weighing in on Memphis in May’s future, pleading with leaders to choose wisely when it comes to an event that pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy.
“It’s not Memphis in Tiger Lane… or Memphis in Collierville,” said Trey Kuhn with Swinefeld Championship BBQ.
Trey Kuhn has been a part of the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest for decades. Monday he received a letter asking for feedback on where that part of the festival should move.
“It’s Memphis in May and that deserves to be downtown,” said Kuhn.
It comes as Memphis in May makes plans to move the annual festival off the river next year, following a $60 million renovation to Tom Lee Park by Memphis River Parks Partnership. That organization is now suing MIM for park damages from this year’s festival.
The disagreement prompted a response from Kevin Kane, president and CEO of Memphis Tourism:
“As a $4 billion dollar industry in Memphis and Shelby County that generated over $260 million in local and state sales tax in 2022, the local tourism and hospitality industry cannot afford to lose any cornerstone event on the calendar that draws visitors to our destination,” Kane said. “We must all work together to create a safe and welcoming environment, adapt to changing conditions and ensure our visitor economy continues to grow as it did by 16% from 2021 to 2022. “
Tourism officials said they weren’t taking sides in the MIM vs. MRPP issue — they just wanted to see it resolved.
“Tourism tax dollars deposited by visitors here in our city and county are critically important to funding the needs of our community, in addition to the $1.2 billion in wages paid to local tourism and hospitality industry employees,” Kane said.
A letter from Jim Holt, MIM’s president, said the festival had few options for a new venue, but was leaning toward Liberty Park, which hosted the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and Beale Street Music Festival in 2011 and 2022.
“There are no viable locations to hold the event downtown or on the riverfront other than Tom Lee Park, and we no longer see TLP as a viable venue while Memphis River Parks Partnership has control of the park,” Holt wrote.
After this year’s return to the river, the festival was presented with a $1.4 million bill for damages from the MRPP, mostly from the barbecue contest. MRPP, which manages Tom Lee Park, Mud Island River Park and other riverfront parks, filed a lawsuit demanding payment of $675,000.
Holt said they would inform barbecue team members of the results of the feedback survey Friday.
For smokemasters BBQ Memphis, competing for year 17 at Tiger Lane is not ideal, but it will do.
“There’s not another venue that you’re gonna find that is gonna come anywhere close to the river and we hate that, but it’s nowhere to go have to focus on keeping it relevant to Memphis,” said Will Hair, Pitmaster for Smokemasters BBQ. “I hope there is some resolution to keep it downtown in Tom Lee Park.”