Mayor Strickland declines to get involved in Memphis in May’s Tom Lee Park dispute

Published: Aug. 26, 2022 at 10:41 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said he will not get involved in the dispute between Memphis In May (MIM) and Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP).

The mayor’s response comes one day after MIM leaders said they need Strickland’s help to get the city’s premiere festival back into a newly remodeled Tom Lee Park at a price they can afford.

Strickland and his number one, Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen, are like the parents who are about to stop the car if the kids in the back seat don’t stop fighting.

The city’s top two leaders are essentially telling MIM and MRPP officials: you all need to work it out.

Over the past 45 years, the month-long MIM International Festival has featured the Beale Street Music Festival, World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, Great American River Run, and salutes to honored countries — like Ghana in 2022.

Memphis in May (MIM) leadership spoke at the annual meeting on Thursday to discuss 2023's...
Memphis in May (MIM) leadership spoke at the annual meeting on Thursday to discuss 2023's festival.(Action News 5)

MIM has survived near bankruptcy in 1998, hurricane-force storms, 2011′s historic flooding, and economic downturns like the COVID-19 pandemic.

But CEO Jim Holt warned his board and volunteers on Thursday that if the biggest party in town doesn’t return to Tom Lee Park in 2023, the party might be over.

“The operation is in jeopardy,” Holt said, “and the destiny of Memphis in May, our civic celebration, should not be determined by a third-party contract vendor for the City of Memphis.”

The third-party vendor in question, MRPP, is the non-profit group in charge of the $60 million transformation of Tom Lee Park.

He says MRPP wants to charge MIM a $1.4 million dollar damage deposit for the 2023 festival. After stalled negotiations on a lease agreement, Holt told Action News 5 on Thursday that he’d like the mayor to intervene.

In a statement on Friday, Strickland said, “Constant bickering between MIM and MRPP is not acceptable and does not achieve positive results for Memphis. I will not negotiate any agreements through media.”

McGowen told the two groups via email, “The city has been asked, yet again, to get involved and mediate your disputes. We decline to do so.”

MRPP CEO Carol Coletta said the deposit will be significantly less if MIM makes the changes spelled out by the park’s architect — changes that would reduce the amount of damage done to the park by festival attendees, BBQ teams and vendors.

“We’ve worked with them to bring that damage deposit down to $375,000,” Coletta said.

MRPP is ready to come to the negotiating table without anyone else getting involved, she added.

”It seems wholly unnecessary to me,” she said. “I mean, I think Chief McGowen and Mayor Strickland were both really clear: we’ve got two civic boards who ought to be working for the city, y’all work it out.”

Holt said MIM lost $4 million between 2020 and 2022.

In 2020, the festival had to be canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ticket sales and attendance dropped during the 2022 festival, largely because he said the events took place at Liberty Park in Midtown.

110,000 people bought tickets for 2022′s festival, versus 178,000 in 2019 when the celebration was down by the river.

“Memphis in May’s future should not be predicated on the whims of a city contractor,” Holt said. “Over the course of 45 years, Memphis in May has generated a total economic impact on the City of Memphis of $1.4 billion, and we’ve done this without being a burden to the local taxpayer. We’re down, but we’re not out.”

MIM hasn’t announced the next honored country yet because of the uncertainty with signing a lease at Tom Lee Park.

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