Watchdog Group Questions Federal Dollars For Memphis Landmark

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(Memphis) Who could forget the Mississippi River rising to historic levels, spilling over its banks, into parts of Memphis in May 2011?

The so-called Flood of the Century temporarily drowned communities in north and southwest Memphis. It also dried up tourist dollars for some city landmarks that were not touched by a drop of water.

Kevin Kane is president and CEO of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It was one of the worst years and worst summers for tourism in Memphis,” Kane said.

America thought Memphis was underwater, and that kept tourists away from visiting Beale Street, Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum.

Ty Agee is president of the Beale Street Merchants Association and owner of Miss Polly’s on Beale.

“You had the national media out in chest waters and made it look like the whole city was underwater. Everybody around us was really struggling,” Agee said.

But a group called Tennessee Watchdog takes issue with the Civil Rights Museum.

In a recent online article, it says the museum is the only tourist site to receive $2 million in federal taxpayer money under what it calls the pretense of flood disaster relief.

Beverly Robertson, the executive director of the National Civil Rights Museum, says the economic development administration properly vetted the museum and the grant money is needed for renovations.

“So, while we weren’t affected directly by the flood, we were from an economic perspective,” Robertson said.

Tennessee Watchdog points out the flood in question never came close to hitting the museum and it didn’t just happen, since the flooding was two years ago.

Robertson says the museum started talks with the EDA three years ago.

She says the museum is also the economic engine driving the resurgence of the South Main Historic District and when it hurt, nearby businesses and restaurants also felt the pain because of 13,000 fewer tourists during that summer.

The museum attracts more than 200,000 tourists a year and more than three million visitors have passed through its doors since it opened 21 years ago.

“It was couched as the they got this for the flood and they weren’t even hurt by the flood. It was about the economic impact this institution serves not only for the city, the state and the nation. We were smart enough to know those dollars existed and we went after it and maybe if others had approached it this way might be recipients,” Robertson said.

Regarding federal grants, the city says it doesn’t specifically provide a service out-lining federal dollars that might be available.

We’re told the Grant Center on Mendenhall does help people or groups apply, especially for those who don’t have a grant writer on staff.

George Little is Mayor AC  Wharton’s chief administrative officer and says be believes the federal funds were available to other attractions, as well.

“Perhaps it would have been great for other attractions here in the city that we want to see grow, if they would have gotten in an application, but I don’t fault the National Civil Rights Museum for applying,” Little said.

Kevin Kane agrees, “I say good for the Civil Rights Museum. I’m glad they were able to get some relief for the hardship they incurred.”

Back on Beale Street, Ty Agee says he didn’t know about the federal grant, but he has no reason to criticize any tourist attraction that got assistance.

“If I knew something was available, I would have filled out one myself. (Laughter) I think it’s great that money was available and it was needed,” Agee said.

The National Civil Rights Museum, a Memphis landmark, helps tells the story of American history, and its organizers make no apologies for doing what they can to preserve its past and future

“I make no apologies because I don’t think this institution deserves anything less than support,” Robertson said.

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