Memphis in May to downsize, lose key festival elements for 2023

Published: Aug. 25, 2022 at 6:54 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis in May (MIM) will return to Tom Lee Park in 2023, but the cost of moving the event back to the renovated park by the Mighty Mississippi River could break the bank for the city’s premiere festival.

MIM President and CEO Jim Holt made the announcement Thursday night at their annual dinner with volunteers and board members.

Holt said there’s less room to work with in the redesigned park, and he said the damage deposit required by Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP), the non-profit group in charge of Tom Lee Park, could be a deal breaker.

“The $60 million dollar relandscaped park,” Holt told Action News 5, “is going to be approximately 40 percent smaller than what we’ve had in the past, so we’re expecting a reduction in our revenues between $2 and $3 million.”

Holt said the remodeled park will force MIM to get rid of the Blues Tent at the Beale Street Music Festival.

He also said it will allow only 150 teams to participate in the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest instead of 230.

Even worse, he said, is MRPP’s new, million-dollar damage deposit.

“Going from a $53,000 damage expense to a required deposit of $1.4 million,” said Holt, “is a 26-times increase. It’s not viable. It’s not financially viable.”

With a deposit that large, Holt said the non-refundable deposits required from vendors and BBQ teams who want to compete would jump from $300 to $7900, something that elicited loud groans from the crowd at the annual meeting.

Young Dolph performs at Memphis in May 2018
Young Dolph performs at Memphis in May 2018(Isaac Singleton)

MRPP CEO Carol Coletta told Action News 5 that the park is still the same size — 30 acres, and they’ve negotiated the deposit down to a more agreeable amount.

”We’ve worked with them to bring that damage estimate down to $375,000,” she said, “based on certain recommendations made by our contractor and the architect. They know the park best. I think it’s a very reasonable amount to ask. I understand the damage at Tiger Lane (Liberty Park) this year was maybe about half of that.”

Holt wants Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland to help both sides reach common ground and hammer out a new lease, much the same way he supported mediation between the groups to work out specifications for the new park.

”Memphis in May will be in Tom Lee Park in May of 2023,” Mayor Strickland told Action News 5 on Thursday. “There’s no doubt in my mind. They will be there. The improvements may not be done at the park, so construction crews may have to take 30, 45 days off, but they will be in the park.”

Memphis in May lost $2 million at this year’s festival. Holt mostly blames the relocation to Liberty Park in Midtown.

He said MIM had a $149 million economic impact pre-pandemic with the festival at its scenic location on the riverbank.

That number dropped to $72 million when the 2022 music fest and BBQ contest took place at the old fairgrounds, Holt said.

While Holt said more tickets sold when the fun was happening downtown, the question now is: Can Memphis in May afford to move back to Tom Lee Park?

”I see Memphis in May returning to Tom Lee Park now and forever,” Holt said, “as Mayor Strickland communicated a few years ago, but not under these ridiculous financial terms.”

Coletta said she absolutely wants the festival back in the park, too, but added: “We think it’s very reasonable to protect the investment that people have made and to make sure everybody has an interest in keeping the damages to a minimum.”

Construction at Tom Lee Park would be paused during the month of May and finished after the festivals have ended, with an official ribbon cutting for the grand opening coming later in the summer.

MRPP said the park is 50 percent complete at this point.

Memphis in May officials said they plan to meet with Mayor Strickland next week.

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