City leaders question whether or not Memphis in May will destroy renovated Tom Lee Park

Published: Feb. 24, 2023 at 11:00 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - On Tuesday, council members grilled leaders from Memphis in May (MIM) and Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP) about how the $61 million redesigned Tom Lee Park is going to hold up during the Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbeque Cooking Contest.

In just 48 hours, MIM will announce the artists who will perform at this year’s Beale Street Music Festival at Tom Lee Park.

One small hitch: Memphis In May and MRPP, the non-profit managing the park, still haven’t inked a deal on the park lease.

The final sticking point is over a handicap-accessible entrance ramp at Tom Lee Park and the $5,000 needed to staff the entrance. While that’s being worked out, Memphis City Council wanted to know how MIM and MRPP are planning to keep millions of dollars worth of new plants and equipment safe from the thousands of festival goers and construction crews.

Tuesday’s council meeting was a discussion about damage control.

“You know, you can have nice things and not tear them up,” Councilman Dr. Jeff Warren said. “Are you going to be able to set up your tents and do your thing without damaging the park?”

”We have a number of protocols that we’re putting in place to make sure the park is protected,” MIM President & CEO Jim Holt replied.

”I’ve driven by, and the park looks beautiful,” said Councilwoman Cheyenne Johnson. “But once those fellows get out there with those big boots, those little boxwoods that are one foot tall are going to be mashed down so quickly.”

“We’re comfortable that we can put the festival on,” said Holt. “It is going to be much smaller this year than it has been in the past.”

Holt said MIM will use mobile stages instead of steel stages for Music Fest. The popular Blues Tent is being moved to Handy Park on Beale Street because of space issues. Instead of 232 teams in the BBQ contest, there will be 150.

The popular Patio Porkers category had to be nixed because there isn’t enough room to fit the backyard BBQ teams in the remodeled park. But Friday, the Downtown Memphis Commission and Beale Street management announced the inaugural “Patio Porkers on Beale” event. 30 teams will compete at Handy Park on May 20, which is also the final day of competition of the World Championship Barbeque Cooking Contest at Tom Lee Park.

Admission to the Patio Porker on Beale is free to the public. Beale Street businesses are salivating at the thought of greater foot traffic on the historic street during MIM. But Memphians like Jordan Wooten are not impressed with the changes or the contentious negotiations between MIM and MRPP.

”I’m not as excited about it as I was before,” Wooten told Action News 5. “We’ll have to see.”

MRPP COO Art Davis told the council about the group’s plan to safeguard its investment.

”The Partnership is installing $300,000 in fencing to help protect the park,” said Davis. “We’re also paying $50,000 for a cover for the sunset canopy to help protect that.”

The city council is poised to approve $500,000 in taxpayer money to cover the wear and tear, once the two sides have a park lease signed. MIM is responsible for another $500,000 damage deposit and getting liability insurance to cover any costs over $1 million.

MIM starts in just 70 days with the launch of the Beale Street Music Festival on May 5.

“Nobody up here can make an argument,” said City Council Chairman Martavius Jones. “Nobody in this city can make the argument that the biggest economical driver from a tourist standpoint is Memphis in May.”

Holt said 176 teams have applied for the World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest. Only 150 will make the cut.

The Beale Street Music Fest line-up will be announced at 8 a.m. Monday.

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