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Vitu: There’s lesson for Tucson in Memphis

Tucson's downtown skyline.

Tucson's downtown skyline.

Just back from Memphis, Tenn., where they have a downtown trolley, Graceland, a downtown baseball stadium and the biggest city in what they call the Mid-South.
This sounds like the recipe for a bustling downtown, right? Maybe.
Granted, I spent only portions of three days in Memphis, all in the middle of the week. But I sensed a consistent trend in the early evening, late evening, early morning and late morning hours I devoted to downtown: a sparsity of human presence.
Downtown Memphis has an eerie ghost town feel, other than the late-night music scene on the famed Beale Street. The street that gave birth to the blues had action on a Tuesday night but, frankly, probably not that much more than Tucson’s downtown club scene.
This column is not a slam on Memphis, but rather an observation of how Tucson’s touted downtown revitalization efforts may not be a guarantee of swarming masses of people all the time.
OK, it was the offseason in Memphis, mid-October, middle of the week. But let’s face it, Tucson has an offseason that runs, what, nine or 10 months?
Memphis has three downtown trolley routes, all stocked with vintage streetcars, many from New Orleans and Australia. During my weekday rides, there were typically three to six riders aboard and at most 10 passengers.
“A lot of ridership is on Friday, Saturday and Sunday when there are major events going on downtown (such as NBA basketball games, minor league baseball or large conventions),” said Alison Burton, spokeswoman for the Memphis Area Transit Authority.
MATA boasts 1 million trolley riders a year, broken down to 70,000 a month or 18,000 a week or an average daily ridership of 2,600. Roughly boiling that down to the number of trolleys per hour produces about eight passengers per train.
Jeff Sanford, president of the Center City Commission in Memphis (the equivalent of the Downtown Tucson Partnership), lives at one downtown trolley stop and works at another.
“What you saw is simply not representative of the way it is,” said Sanford, whose two daughters studied at the University of Arizona. “(But) I’m not going to tell you there aren’t variances.”
Sanford initially said the trolley often has no empty seats on weekends, but later he did acknowledge that plenty of seats are available when he rides to work and home during the week.
Yet the trolley is deemed a great success by MATA. The Main Street and Riverfront lines were started in 1993, and in 2004 a Madison line was added to serve the medical district, but it has thin ridership as it awaits completion of a $1 billion expansion of the University of Tennessee Baptist Research Park.
“This trolley line has really generated a lot of business action and residential action,” Burton said. “Residential development has truly been a catalyst for the trolley line.”
About 28,000 people live in downtown Memphis, about double the count from 10 years ago with a growth rate of about 10 percent a year.
AutoZone Park, built in 2000, drew the third-largest attendance in the Pacific Coast League this season behind Sacramento, Calif., and Round Rock, Texas, while Tucson had the worst attendance in the 16-team league. But I wasn’t there during baseball season, so the stadium created no street action.
Then again, Graceland, an eternal attraction, had pretty thin attendance.
The Graceland ticket line serpentined a couple times but took a mere 14 minutes to negotiate at 10 a.m. Boarding a shuttle to get to Elvis Presley’s mansion across the street took another 20 minutes. In Elvis terms, these aren’t waits at all. When I got done at noon, not a single person was buying a ticket.
A hundred or so miles to the east in Corinth, Miss., I stopped by the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center, opened in 2006 and designed by Overland Partners, the same Dallas firm designing the visitors center for Tucson Origins. A handful of people wandered around the center in the early afternoon.
Just as telling for Tucson Origins boosters is the Pink Palace Museum, Memphis’ natural and cultural history museum, located in midtown rather than downtown. At 4 p.m., there were four cars in the parking lot – the IMAX screenings had ended at 3, I was told.
Sanford blankly answered the “what have you learned?” about downtown revitalization question that he posed himself.
“That Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said. “Everything in downtown development takes more time. It took several decades for downtown Memphis to get into the shape it’s in. Even with $3 billion, when all that development is completed, we will have only done 40 percent of what needs to be done.”
The $3 billion went to projects done within the past year or under construction. The projects do not include the baseball stadium where the Tucson Sidewinders’ rival Memphis Redbirds play or the $250 million FedEx Forum from 2004, where the NBA Memphis Grizzlies play basketball.
Pay attention to the dollar figures. Memphis, with 670,000 residents, is just a bit larger than Tucson and its 518,000. Metro Memphis ranked No. 41 in 2005 with 1.2 million people, and Tucson ranked No. 52 with 843,000, though local estimates claim Tucson has topped 1 million.
What Memphis says to me is that bustling activity can be spotty, and to achieve even that costs substantially more than anything Tucson has contemplated.
Teya Vitu covers downtown for the Tucson Citizen and this year has wandered the downtowns of Chicago; Montreal; New York City; Memphis; Nashville, Tenn.; and Santa Fe, N.M., which, by the way, had more cranes erected than Tucson.

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