Riverfront Redo: Historic Memphis riverfront, Tom Lee Park see transformation

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Construction kicked off this week as a major milestone at Tom Lee Park gets underway.

The park is a centerpiece for Memphis. Often called our front porch, you see it coming into the city from both bridges.

Also standing tall in Tom Lee Park, the statue to pay homage to a Memphis Hero. Tom Lee made a legendary rescue in 1925 that saved 32 people. The statue stands with 32 lights surrounding it as a memorial to that day when the man who couldn’t swim overcame his fear and pulled people to safety who would have drowned.

“For a long time they’ve wanted their family to be recognized in this park and they actually led the charge to get this statue right here back in the early 90′s,” said George Abbott with the Memphis River Parks Partnership.

Abbott said the monument now serves as a focal point for the brand new things that will surround it - 30 acres of park space that will be a light into Memphis and for Memphis.

“We have so many great advantages and one of them that you mentioned is Tom Lee. His story and how it embodies kind of everything that we think of as Memphis - you know,  grit and grind, working hard and being an everyday hero. We have so many stories and Tom Lee’s is one of the most I think iconic stories,” said Abbott.

The park will feature 4 brand new spaces. One will highlight nature and feed off the river’s ecosystem. Another will be an educational space for kids and teachers, plus a giant playground, more covered spaces, and a pavilion for entertainment and sports. Overall a park to enjoy everything you like no matter your age.

Even with all the “new”, the park doesn’t come without controversy. Some are bothered by the price tag of $60 million. Others are concerned about events like Memphis in May.

Developers told FOX13 they worked hard to work out a deal that’s a “win-win” for everyone. They also had input from students from North and South Memphis schools.

“They worked with the design team over the course of 9 months as embedded designers and they were paid a stipend for their time and they met once a month In person,” Abbott said. “During those meetings, they kind of gave their own feedback and the designers sent them takes and said okay here are some questions, here are some things to take back to your families, to your neighborhoods, and report back next month.”

Abbott said perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of this project has been getting to know the family of Tom Lee like his Great Great Niece, Charmeal Neal who lives in Whitehaven. He said we can expect more in the park to honor Tom Lee as well, but stayed tight-lipped on the specifics.

The $60 million makeover didn’t happen overnight. It’s been in the works for years. It also involves people from Shelby County, the City of Memphis, State of Tennessee, along with local businesses, community advocates, even visitors and long-time residents.

The park is set to be completed in 2023.