October 25, 2015

A year from completion, Big River Crossing already bringing big buzz for West Memphis

It’s at least a year before pedestrians and cyclists will be able to travel from downtown Memphis to West Memphis on the Harahan Bridge—but the eastern Arkansas city is already buzzing with energy in anticipation.

West Memphis hosted its second Arkansas Delta Flatlander cycling event on Oct. 10, a preview of recreation opportunities that lay ahead. And just three days later, state, regional and local officials gathered to officially announce plans Delta Regional River Park, a major recreation destination on the Arkansas banks of the Mississippi that proponents have called “the Shelby Farms of Arkansas.”

“This is the next big thing,” city planner Paul Luker said in an Oct. 21 story about plans for the park published in Crittenden County’s The Evening Times. “We haven’t taken anyone down there that hasn’t said it is great.”

The boardwalk across the Harahan is the centerpiece of the multi-million-dollar Main to Main Intermodal Connector Project linking downtown Memphis with West Memphis. Funding comes from a federal TIGER IV grant, the Tennessee Dept. of Transportation, charitable foundations, corporations and individuals. About 900 feet of the roughly 5,000-foot boardwalk are in place and officials expect an opening in October of 2016.

The land for the Delta Regional River Park, which will include a 6.7-mile trail loop for bikes and pedestrians, is made possible by easements recently provided by the primary landowners.

Since the plans for the Harahan boardwalk—now known as the Big River Crossing—were announced in 2012, organizers and visionaries on both sides of the river have been planning and collaborating. West Memphis collaborated with Memphis and Tennessee officials on the TIGER IV grant and city leaders have been involved in every stage of planning.

Focusing on the big picture and coordinating much of the activity is the Big River Strategic Initiative. Big River representatives convinced the St. Francis Levee Board to open up a 63-mile stretch of Arkansas levee for the Big River Parkway, another part of the master plan. The initiative also secured an agreement with the National Geographic Project to develop the Mississippi River corridor as a geotourism destination.

At the local level, leaders in West Memphis were eager to be ahead of the outdoor recreation curve. In anticipation of cyclists crossing from Memphis looking for two-wheel excursions, the city hosted the first Arkansas Delta Flatlander in October 2014. The “metric century ride” drew about 130 enthusiasts for a 62-mile ride that started at the trailhead of the Harahan approach then traveled south to Horseshoe Lake and back.

For this year’s Flatlander, organizers added live music and food trucks plus an off-road ride,The St. Francis Levee Gravel Grinder. The 21-mile ride took fat-tire cyclists north on the St. Francis Levee through parts of the proposed park that, three days later, became known as the Delta Regional River Park.

This year’s Flatlander drew about 100 riders total for both rides. Jim Jackson, director of the West Memphis Office of Tourism, said he’s confident the cycling community is helping spread the news about what’s in store for cyclists on the Arkansas side of the river.

“The first Flatlander was a way for us to introduce riders to the Arkansas side of the Mississippi,” Jackson said. “The growth is slow, but the seeds we’ve planted are going to really take off next fall when the Big River Crossing opens. These couple hundred riders see the potential in this waterfront space with a great Memphis view. We want to ensure everyone, not just the hard core cyclist, knows about the cycling and other recreation opportunities available on the this side of the Harahan bridge.”

As the city’s director of economic development, Ward Wimbish is well aware of what top-notch outdoor recreation destinations can do for the city’s reputation among businesses looking to locate in the Mid-South. But as an avid cyclist, he’s working as a grassroots organizer, serving as chairman of Eastern Arkansas Cycling Group, a new non-profit dedicated to the development of bikeways and trails in Eastern Arkansas. The group sponsored this year’s Flatlander.

“We want to raise public awareness of the fantastic biking opportunities in eastern Arkansas, particularly in the area between the two bridges along the River,” Wimbish said. “There are grants available for the development of bikeways but the area falls outside of both Marion and West Memphis, making match money hard to come by. Our group wants to fill that void by putting on events like this to raise the match money for grants.”

For inspiration, Wimbish and his group can look to the partners who managed to land a $1 million federal air quality grant for developing the primary trail in the proposed Delta River Park. City planner Paul Luker and Big River Initiative executive director Terry Eastin wrote the grant and convinced the West Memphis Advertising and Promotion commission to provide a $250,000 match.

Eastin and Luker spend a lot of time touting the potential of developing trails and recreation areas in the land between the Harahan Bridge and the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, using statistics like this—trails like the one in the proposed park bring in nine dollars in tourism revenue for every dollar invested.

“Even if you’re not a cyclist, this is a good thing for West Memphis and for the entire Mid-South,” Luker said.