August 23, 2013

With Harahan on the horizon, leaders advised to “dream big”

Close to 40 civic and business leaders gathered in West Memphis Thursday, Aug. 22 to hear first-hand how trail projects like the one planned for the Harahan Bridge can provide cities with unprecedented opportunities for growth and development.

A Memphis real estate pioneer, a planning director from North Mississippi and a former mayor each told the group gathered at Mid-South Community College essentially the same thing – the potential is there and the time is now.

“We could find the wrong in any city and just pick it apart,” said Bob Barber, a consultant and former city planner for Hernando, Miss. “The more noble thing is to understand what the assets are and build to them.”

For Hernando, Barber said, the asset was its town square. By using resources to improve what was already positive for the town and then focusing on natural assets and enhancing livability, Hernando has developed an impressive park and greenway system and is now ranked as one the 100 most desirable small towns in the nation.

Barber suggested that the Main to Main project, which will connect Main Street in Memphis with Broadway in West Memphis via a pedestrian and bike trail across the Harahan Bridge, is an invitation to develop the West Memphis riverfront with an emphasis on green.

“You don’t have to create another Memphis on this side of the river,” he said. “You’re sitting on a counterpoint to downtown, urban Memphis – which is a great place to be – with a pedestrian and bike trail to something pastoral and green.”

Patrick Hays, former mayor of North Little Rock, said that the strengths he saw when he took office about 25 years ago – including being across a river from a large urban area – are almost identical to what he sees in West Memphis. Hays oversaw a revitalization of North Little Rock’s downtown area, the development of a robust park system and the completion of the Big Dam Bridge – the longest pedestrian and bike only bridge in the country. He has a keen interest in public health and wellness and in environmental issues.

“I worried more about quality of life and made people want to live there,” he told the group, noting that bicycle tourism brings more money into Arkansas than hunting and fishing. “We know what to do, we just have to do it. It’s not cheap but the investment is worthwhile.”

Memphis real estate developer Henry Turley admitted that he was a little behind on the greenway movement. But he’s no longer surprised that the Shelby Farms Greenline in Memphis has exploded in popularity, connecting riders and walkers from across the area and boosting business for neighborhoods like High Point Terrace.

“I tested this with people my age and said, ‘Would you ride on this?’ And they told me how they were converted by their bicycle experience,” Turley said. “They just lit up.”

Turley said the east end of Broadway needs to be revived to take full advantage of the bicyclists, walkers and tourists that the Harahan trail could potentially attract.

It’s all possible, Barber said, with patience, community buy-in and a focus on assets – plus a willingness to dream big.

“You always have to build to your hopes and dreams if you want to build a better place,” he said. “What a tremendous example you have with the Harahan Bridge project.”

For a comprehensive look at the Main to Main project, check out the July 5 edition of “Behind the Headlines” from WKNO-TV, featuring West Memphis Planning Director Paul Luker.