Fight over finances continues as Memphis in May draws near

Published: Feb. 8, 2023 at 10:49 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis in May (MIM) leaders say the organization is fighting for survival. The City’s premiere festival still has not locked down a deal with Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP) to be in Tom Lee Park this year.

MRPP requires a lease deposit to cover damage done to the park during the events. The head of Memphis In May called the amount requested “excessive” and said it’s not financially feasible.

He went a step further saying it feels like they’re trying to shut MIM down.

The $61 million makeover of Tom Lee Park is still a work in progress, with construction crews busy creating what will be Downtown Memphis’ new oasis of relaxation and outdoor Zen.

The park has been home to Memphis In May for four decades, and the 2023 Memphis In May Beale Street Music Festival is supposed to kick off there on May 5, in just 86 days.

The construction of the stages begins a week before that, and the clock is ticking.

“We are at a stalemate,” MIM President and CEO Jim Holt told Memphis City Council members Tuesday, Feb 7.

Holt said they still don’t have a lease agreement with MRPP, the non-profit managing Tom Lee Park.

”So our expenses are skyrocketing to an unsustainable level, and our revenues are diving because of the restrictive capacity in the park,” said Holt. “With the redesign of the park, our capacity has been reduced by approximately 40%.”

Holt said the Beale Street Music Festival typically attracts 35,000 people. But the capacity this year with the park’s redesign, he said, allows only 22,000 attendees.

The World Championship Barbeque Cooking Contest usually hosts 232 teams. This year, said Holt, they will only have 150.

The sticking point right now is the damage deposit and liability.

Originally, MRPP requested a deposit of $1.4 million. Holt, in August, asked Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland to intervene and help negotiate a compromise. The current offer: the City of Memphis agreed to cover half a million dollars, with Memphis In May putting down an additional $500,000.

But if Music Fest and the BBQ contest cause more than $1 million in damages, MRPP wants to make sure Memphis In May pays the tab to fix it. MIM, according to MRPP, insisted on limited liability, which would make MRPP and the City of Memphis responsible for additional damage, not MIM.

”Memphis In May is ultimately responsible for any damages that occur during their occupancy of the park regardless of that amount,” MRPP Board Chair Tyree Daniels told Action News 5. “Anybody that incurs damage should actually want to bear the responsibility for doing it.”

City Council members have lost patience with both sides in this long, drawn-out ordeal.

”There’s bad blood between the two,” said Councilman Worth Morgan, “and that is really what is inhibiting this, rather than a dollar and cents amount. That’s why we’re here trying to arbitrate this.”

”Nobody wants to see Memphis In May be insolvent and go bankrupt. The events themselves are significant to the city,” said Councilman Chase Carlisle, “but both of these groups are non-profits. Both have intelligent, sophisticated boards. I think it’s disappointing that it couldn’t get worked out, yet here we are. We spent the morning talking about a man losing his life to police brutality and now we’re arguing about this.”

Council Chairman Martavius Jones, who sits on MIM’s board, told them, “To have an injection into our economy, what’s bigger than Memphis in May? Nothing. Folks, let’s get this worked out!”

When the Beale Street Music Festival starts May 5, Tom Lee Park won’t be finished yet.

Many areas of the park still under construction will be walled off, unavailable for use by MIM attendees. It’s already been announced the Blues Tent will not be located in the park this year but will take place instead at Handy Park on Beale Street.

MRPP’s Daniels said the grand opening of the new Tom Lee Park is now scheduled for Labor Day weekend.

Mayor Strickland and newly appointed COO Chandell Ryan are mediators between MIM and MRPP on the lease deal.

Late Wednesday, Memphis In May officials released the following statement:

“Memphis in May remains an active and willing negotiating partner seeking a lease for the 2023 festival events in Tom Lee Park. We’re grateful for Mayor Strickland and COO Chandell Ryan’s stewardship in helping resolve the lease issues. Good progress has been made and we look forward to finalizing the remaining issues related to restoration charges and damage liabilities. We are exploring additional insurance options as suggested by City Council. We look forward to the festival’s return to the riverfront.”

Click here to sign up for our newsletter!

Click here to report a spelling or grammar error. Please include the headline.