B$L - The Inconvenient Truths

John Branston exposes fiscal incompetency on the riverfront and reveals why we are where we are:

Recipe for Screwing Up a $35 million Boat Dock Posted by John Branston on Fri, Dec 18, 2009 at 1:00 PM

The Riverfront Development Corporation has posted something called “the truth about Beale Street Landing” on its website.

I have not been a fan of this project since it was conceived. I thought it was grandiose and likely to take several years to complete, cost more than advertised, and overshadow quicker and simpler riverfront improvements. But now that it is underway I hope it is a success. Really. I work half a mile away and walk on the riverfront several times a week.

But I also think the way the project got to this point has been a recipe for how not to do things. Here are some inconvenient truths not included.

Start with a “master plan” with a price tag of $270 million and an infinite timetable that assures there will be no accountability.

Create a Riverfront Development Corporation staffed by three former Memphis public officials and the wife of the city attorney, conveniently making RDC stand for Retired Directors Club.

Repackage same as a focused group with more flexibility and brains than the incompetent public sector.

Pay the executive director, Benny Lendermon, more than the mayor of Memphis but give the agency less responsibility than the mayor or even the Memphis Park Commission.

Gut the master plan by removing its centerpiece, the land bridge to Mud Island and the enclosed harbor. Discuss the ramifications of this rather important and far-reaching decision for less than three minutes at a board meeting.

Pack the board with fishing buddies of the executive director, friendly city council members, and celebrities like Cybill Shepherd, John Calipari and Jerry West who had no stake in the riverfront and didn’t come to many meetings and do not live here any more.

Find a place on the board for the proudly bellicose (ex) president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, Tommy Volinchak, but no place on the board for anyone from Friends For Our Riverfront or Joe Royer of Outdoors Inc, the founder of the canoe race and Cyclocross.

Act exasperated when they do not rise up and call you blessed.

Ignore the demonstrated popularity of minimalist Greenbelt Park across from Harbor Town, which costs little to maintain beyond cutting the grass and has virtually no capital improvements.

Ignore the lessons of Mud Island River Park, an architecture-driven white elephant plagued by delays and cost overruns and now closed half the year.

Ignore the lessons of Chattanooga’s popular riverfront, which has $42 million of private donations.

Take bids for a boat dock but ignore the possibility of a recession (check), the disappearance of overnight riverboat companies (check), the difficulty of building anything in the river especially at the mouth of a harbor and the likelihood of delays, cost increases, high maintenance, and fragile funding from Washington (check, check, and check).

Hire an architect from Argentina.

Use federal funds to leverage at least $20 million in city funds. Remind council members that the project was approved by previous council members, most of whom are no longer serving and who approved the worst administrative outrage in the history of Memphis, the 12-year pension bonanza. Leave current council little choice but to throw good money after bad.

Greet any shred of media skepticism with letters to the editor from board members, orchestrated by the RDC staff.

Lowball the cost of the project to the city council in the face of higher estimates from the city administration, ‘fess up seven months later, but accuse critics of being zany naysayers even if they actually use the riverfront, unlike the RDC board celebrities.

Ignore the probability of more price increases before project is completed in the summer 2011.

Be as adversarial as possible with regular users of the river and the boat docks like Joe Royer.

Go to war with Friends For Our Riverfront even though they are natural allies because 90 percent of the rest of Memphis doesn’t give a hoot about the riverfront after Memphis in May or worry much about tourism when they can’t make ends meet.

Insure thereby that no improvement to the overrated pile of rocks known as the cobblestones will be made for another decade and that attention will be diverted from the more important issue of Front Street.

Allow the corner of Beale and Riverside Drive to persist as a fenced-off weed yard that every tourist walking from The Peabody or Beale Street to the river can see before making that daring and challenging walk across Riverside Drive to Tom Lee Park.

Ask city council to “cough up” the “holdback” in federal funds at a time when household budgets and paychecks are being cut.

Take no blame.

Insist everything will be great.

Beale Street Landing: Not on Time, Not Within Budget Posted by John Branston on Tue, Dec 15, 2009 at 10:43 AM

The mantra for FedEx Forum was "on time, within budget, and exceed expectations." The mantra for Beale Street Landing might be the same with the addition of the word "not" a couple of times.

The Riverfront Development Corporation says the cost of former mayor Willie Herenton's signature riverfront project has increased by $8.9 million and the completion date is now the summer of 2011.

The cost overrun was not unexpected. When BSL came before the Memphis City Council in May, RDC director Benny Lendermon insisted the project cost, originally pegged at $27.4 million, was $31 million even though various documents from City Hall showed the cost was in excess of $33 million. When Councilman Kemp Conrad asked about "the delta" between the numbers, Lendermon said reports about the higher number were inaccurate.

It is now clear that they were, but on the low side, not the high side. The RDC now says the "current construction estimate" is $35 million.

The RDC reported the bad news last week in the fourth paragraph of a story on its website headlined "Beale Street Landing answers call for reunion of Memphis and the Mississippi."

"RDC has been especially prudent in managing its operating funds and careful in value-engineering various aspects of the project to reduce costs. Increases are due to a combination of delays, redesigns related to historical preservation issues, and cost escalation related to schedule delays. In addition, unexpected Congressional holdbacks have meant that federal funds designated for the project have been reduced by more than $1.4 million below what was anticipated and budgeted. Due to this nearly three-year delay, the RDC expects about $9 million in combined cost increases and funding decreases."

"Roughly $7 million of the cost increase is directly related to construction inflation, which was exacerbated as a result of Hurricane Katrina."

The federal funds "holdbacks" mean Memphis taxpayers will be asked to pay the difference as well as the cost increase. The project is underway at the north end of Tom Lee Park.