Because of lacking transparency, Memphis taxpayers just don’t know how their public dollars are being spent. Given the former and regardless of how one may feel about Memphis Riverfront development, taxpayers should be concerned that the City of Memphis Riverfront Steering Committee (RSC) never publicly functioned, while instead operating in secrecy. This RSC secret operation occurred, with the apparent blessing of Mayor Jim Strickland, under former City Chief Operating Officer, Doug McGowen (For background read Part I).
Will McGowen’s successor, City of Memphis Chief Operating Officer, Chandell Ryan course correct away from lacking transparency and deliver a publicly functioning RSC? This blog will expand, to ask questions regarding next steps with the RSC, while exploring the Riverfront Cossitt Library and Cobblestone Landing projects. Both projects were overpaid millions by the Strickland Administration, for uncompleted work.
Mayor Jim Strickland created the Riverfront Steering Committee (RSC) around 2019, which operated in secrecy under McGowen, until his departure for MLGW in early 2023. The RSC was established to oversee and manage $100M in publicly funded Riverfront projects, but the RSC never publicly met, published minutes or reported out to the public.
The following are the project costs paid by taxpayers: Tom Lee Park ($40M), Cobblestone Landing ($11M), Boat Docks ($20M), Cossitt Library ($7M), Brooks Museum ($12M) and Mud Island ($10M). The current insanity involves the heavily taxpayer subsidized Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP) attempting to run the unsubsidized Memphis in May (MIM) out of business, all while MIM generates anywhere from $2.5-$4.5M per year in local tax revenue (Memphis in May)
In hindsight, it seems Ryan’s first RSC task, in February 2023 after succeeding McGowen, was to lure Memphis in May (MIM) to sign a contract with Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP), for the use of Tom Lee Park (TLP). The former was done by setting the expectation that damages from MIM’s use of TLP would likely not exceed $350K. This turned out not to be the case, with MRPP delivering a $1.4M bill for “damages” to MIM on August 3, 2023. While unconfirmed, rumor has it that of the $1.4M in damages, $250K is for pressure washing. If true, this figure should give taxpayers pause, as these are the type of excessive costs, taxpayers are likely routinely paying MRRP for development and maintenance services.
Perhaps, new to the job, Ryan trusted MRPP when setting the $350K expectation. But how must Ryan and the City Council feel now? Don’t they know they are dealing with a bogus civic broker in MRPP? And then there is the dispute brewing between Friends for the Riverfront and Brooks Art Museum. All of which makes for quite the RSC clean up opportunity for Ryan. But will Ryan clean up RSC? For example, few know that MRPP botched the Cossitt Library project and the City RSC directly managed Cobblestone Landing project is in shambles. The status of these and other Riverfront projects need to be formally communicated to the public, by a publicly facing City of Memphis Riverfront Steering Committee.
The downtown Cossitt Library closed at the beginning of 2018 for renovation. The $6.5M Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP) Cossitt Library renovation, initially scheduled as a year-long project, was never completed by MRPP. However, a reckless Strickland Administration paid MRRP in full, as if they had completed the renovation. The project was taken over by the City at the end of 2021, resulting in a 5-year public library closure that disenfranchised taxpayers due to MRPP’s lack of construction progress. The Cossitt set out to honor black people, but MRPP dishonored them by not sealing the concrete floors (pictured) per City contract and leaving the indoor Cossitt staircase unreconstructed. (City of Memphis FOIA - Cossitt) (Daily Memphian) Sealing the concrete floors on a $6.5M project is low cost and high impact. Arguably, neglecting such a basic task communicates to taxpayers that MRPP just doesn't care. Some suspect that the Cossitt project was more about funding TLP development and less about honoring black people. Regardless, promises were broken by MRPP, and taxpayers suffered from an extended closure and unappealing unsealed concrete floors, all accommodated by McGowen’s RSC. The question remains: will Chandell Ryan or Mayor Strickland himself course correct and establish a transparent, publicly functioning Riverfront Steering Committee (RSC)?
And then there is the City of Memphis Cobblestones Landing project. The Cobblestones were supposed to be completed by May of 2023. However, the project is currently a disaster and horribly behind schedule, where a “SLOP” labeled barrel sits, aptly describing the state of the Cobblestones project (pictured). This is just another RSC mismanagement and possibly another MRPP Tom Lee Park cash grab. After all, the last report stated the contractor had been paid 96% of a $9.4M contract, while the Cobblestones project remains a muddy mess and in total disarray. (City of Memphis FOIA – Cobblestones)
Regarding Mud Island and the boat docks, information is scarce because the RSC isn't functioning properly! Not to mention the questionable decision to spend $20M in public money on boat docks, knowing an existing dock is available and, on the rare occasions multiple boats are present, those boats wouldn't bypass Memphis during a Mississippi River cruise. While challenges would be expected with multiple Riverfront projects ongoing, many issues could have been avoided with an operational City of Memphis Riverfront Steering Committee, public MRPP meetings, regularly published MRPP minutes, and monthly financials. The pressing question is: will Mayor Strickland and/or Chandell Ryan take steps to ensure transparency and functionality in the Riverfront Steering Committee?
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