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Dan Conaway

Dan Conaway is in a relationship with his city. A communication strategist, freelance writer, and author of "I'm a Memphian," he can be reached at dan@wakesomebodyup.com.

Conaway: Looking at Tom Lee Park

By Published: May 26, 2019 4:13 PM CT

Everybody has been talking and writing about Tom Lee Park. Everybody has been asking my opinion about Tom Lee Park. In my small world, everybody is more than 10 readers, several friends and more than one bartender.

OK, here are three opinions:

1. Memphis in May must stay in Tom Lee Park.

That’s the river out there. The reason there’s a city here. Despite the alternatives others have presented, there is no better place to throw this city’s party than Tom Lee Park. This is our finest stage, the river that defines our country’s east and west at our feet, the bluff and the skyline as backdrop, our bridges on our wings, and the western sunset as our house lights. Anywhere else is, well, just anywhere else. Other venues may physically work, but spiritually and symbolically – soulfully – Memphis in May without the river might as well be Tulsa in May.

<strong>Dan Conaway</strong>

Dan Conaway

2. Memphis in May and Memphis River Parks Partnership must come down off their respective high horses and get back down on the ground.

Carol Coletta, head of the Memphis River Parks Partnership, has acknowledged the importance of Tom Lee Park and its connection to the river as defining real estate for Memphis, and yet has also said that, left up to her, she would move Memphis in May. That is oxymoronic.

Much of the proposed redesign of the park will truly enhance visitor experience across the year but threaten May. And much of the design is more over-the-top than Lady Gaga’s closet and just as locally relevant. We don’t need a concrete water feature, topography that imitates the river, and humps and bumps. The real river is right out there, and there’s already a big manmade hump at one end of the park. We do need more open spaces than the plan provides. We don’t need a massive, 60- to 70-foot birdhouse. Anybody that’s been around trees taken over by thousands of grackles and what they leave behind knows that.

We could use some shade, a little contouring here and there, some stabilized ground and drainage, some hardy landscaping, and enhanced walkways and facilities. We don’t need so many trees that they block the view of the river, divide the park, and overly limit its use as festival grounds.

Memphis in May is important, even critical. It is not however the reason the city breathes and has life, as some have suggested, nor did it all by itself raise the city from the dead 40 years ago. It played and continues to play an important role in the city’s resurrection. We, however, do not need the permission of Memphis in May to move forward as a city.

One month cannot hold the other 11 hostage. One park redesign is not so sacred that it cannot be revised. Compromise here is a mandate, not a choice.

3. All of us need to take a look around and see what we see from Tom Lee Park. What we’re looking at is not vision.

At the north end, there’s restaurant space built without a gas line, and an elaborate corkscrew docking facility where an ever-growing riverboat cruise industry can’t dock at low water.

Across the way, is Mud Island with no real workable solution to its use, short or long-range, or to its ingress and egress, and no real respect shown to its incredible potential.

To the east is the bluff that we would carve into and reshape, although history has shown that it might just slide onto Riverside Drive. And we would narrow Riverside Drive to just two lanes for the safety and convenience of those crossing from the newly carved bluff, although history has shown that narrowing clogs traffic and inconveniences all of Downtown.

And parking for all of that will evidently remain a nightmare, real accessibility an illusion.

We’re about to spend $50 million to fix something that’s not really broken, and throw chump change or nothing at all at opportunities for true transformation.

I’m a Memphian, and our priorities and plans for the riverfront need work. 

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