By Ryan Jones
It only takes trust, strong and talented partners, extensive planning, and the determination of each organization to make the collaboration more important than any of the constant challenges and opportunities to ignore the needs of other partners. Trust is earned by people working together on common challenges – learning by doing and building trust in the process.
Memphis has a history of projects that operate in a vacuum. Seemingly good ideas on their own, they often floundered when faced with the realities of execution. Observed from afar, these past projects may have seemed out-of-touch or odd in their exclusion of other community members, business leaders or civic partners.
Taking this lesson from the past and applying it to the Fourth Bluff, our version of the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative, we’ve endeavored to find all of the key stakeholders in our project on the front-end and enable them to take a fully invested role in the success and execution of what we’re trying to accomplish. Looking at the area encompassed by the Fourth Bluff, we realized that an impressive number of community partners and businesses could (and should!) be involved, both physically, monetarily and in the forms of the varied expertise they could lend.
Rendering of RiverPlay by Groundswell Design Group
Taking full advantage of a diverse roster
But bringing together a great group of talented partners and stakeholders is only half the battle. Once we assembled our team, it was important that everyone trust each other to do what they do best, respectively, while also working as a team. This means clearly knowing everyone’s strengths and advantages and using them when it comes time to work on a project. Taking full advantage of a diverse roster of partners means not only bringing everyone together on paper but to also allow everyone to do what they do best… basically, managing the team and playing to everyone’s strengths. As a result, the Fourth Bluff is developing into what is likely the strongest collaboration of downtown Memphis stakeholders and managers ever assembled. A collaboration that is made even more unique due to many of these stakeholders also being citywide organizations like the Memphis Public Library System, the City of Memphis, UrbanArt Commission and others, as well as the fact that this partnership is not comprised of big businesses, corporations or firms like the typical “downtown” collaboration.
Some prime examples of this team and the execution of its ideas include several Fourth Bluff projects, which are the first hints of a major design investment in the Fourth Bluff. These initial examples have led the way in this collaborative lesson, giving the partners quick, small victories and building confidence amongst themselves and the community for larger, more comprehensive plans in the near future.
1) Fourth Bluff Fridays pop-up beer gardens
2) The Fourth Bluff Ice Rink
3) RiverPlay pop-up basketball courts and roller rink on Riverside Drive
Each of these installments relied heavily on various team members’ organizations taking the lead and executing at a high level, all while moving forward at what is a blistering pace for any civic-minded project in Memphis.
photo credit: Memphis Riverfront Development Corporation
Fourth Bluff Fridays pop-up beer gardens
The beer gardens were an instant success. In what was a normally dormant and neglected park space, a team led by the City, the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC), and our vending partners Mobile Merchants and The TapBox, brought this idea from seed to fruition in a remarkably short period of time. Trusting the City to take the lead on permits and administrative approval, while allowing the RDC to do what it does best in managing the logistics of the park maintenance and staffing, sped this idea along exponentially. The DMC provided vital assistance in funding and event/gaming supplies for the event, as well as promotion via its established channels, and the TapBox and Moblie Merchants were entrusted to do what they do best by bringing the beer, fun, music, and food trucks. By allowing partners to operate freely within their own areas of expertise, while keeping the group abreast of their work, we pulled off something many people thought would never work, in a space no one paid any attention to, in a period of only a few weeks from idea to launch.
photo credit: Ryan Jones
The Fourth Bluff Ice Rink
A similar story played out with the Fourth Bluff Ice Rink endeavor. The RDC took the operations lead, as the organization not only oversaw the maintenance of Mississippi River Park where the rink was located, but also had previously done the groundwork and planning for just such an ice rink. Another Fourth Bluff partner, Innovate Memphis, worked hand-in-hand with the RDC and the rest of the team to ensure that all legal and contract work was executed, as well as lending substantial time to social media and communications/media efforts on behalf of the team. We saw Memphians come downtown to the riverfront ice rink in droves, at a period of time in the winter when Memphians aren’t typically looking for outdoor activities. These were not just downtowners, but citizens from all walks of life, all coming together in a space to enjoy an experience that was new to all of them. A collaborative effort led to a uniquely shared experience for Memphis.
photo credit: Jim Weber, The Commercial Appeal
Finally, our upcoming RiverPlay pop-up installment on Riverside Drive will bring in yet another vital downtown Memphis partner in the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies partnership and collaboration on this pop-up allows the Fourth Bluff team to leverage the team’s substantial following, strong reputation, community cache’ and organizational leadership. Again, the RDC and the City have taken ownership of their roles in this pop-up initiative and in doing so, things have moved smoother than anyone thought possible for an idea that would normally be deemed impossible (shutting down a major downtown traffic artery for three months). We’re confident that even more of our downtown team members and stakeholders, from further DMC involvement to artists, community groups, and residents, will become even more involved as this project continue to unfold, and we’ll take the same lessons of collaboration and trust with us into those next steps.
Conceptual plan for RiverPlay by Groundswell Design Group
The thing that we as a team keep coming back to with every installment of our project is that a project and a team are stronger by collaborating and working together, than if they stand alone. Letting each partner take the lead when the situation calls for it allows the overall project to succeed in unprecedented ways. Having a collaboration you can trust has been one key lesson we keep on benefiting from along the way.
Ryan Jones is director of communications at University of Memphis School of Law.