Hello everyone! I’m Cort Percer. When nice weather happens bike shops get busy (I know because I led the fine team at Peddler Bike Shop for a few years), and while Jim, The Bikesmith, is busy wrenching on your bikes I’ll be taking over the Cheers & Gears column. But we’re gonna switch things up a bit and call my version Bikes & Beer & BBQ!
So why have me sub in for Jim? Well, I currently work in land conservation with TennGreen and advocate for parks, livability, and bicycles through Mid South Greenways and Bike Walk Memphis. Throughout the years I’ve written Fix Memphis, Better Bikes & Gardens, and now you can follow my adventures on ADANAY.co. You can also visit my Instagram where I find all kinds of #peoplewhoridebikes.
Bikes & Beer & BBQ & Memphis T-Shirt at The Bikesmith or ADANAY’s Webstore.
This week I talk with Tina Sullivan, the Executive Director of Overton Park Conservancy. We sat down on a sunny Friday evening on the patio at the Overton Park Clubhouse, and had a great conversation over a couple of Wiseacre Anandas. Side note: the Clubhouse is a little gem within the park where you can sit under the trees, watch the park activity, have a beer, and maybe even talk bikes with the staff.
You ride bikes a lot. I seem to always see you riding your bike in the park. Where else do you ride?
I do a loop downtown because I love to go down Riverside Drive. If I’m feeling frisky I do the AW Willis Bridge.
There’s been a lot of press about Riverside Drive; the bike lanes, cruising, pedestrian access, etc. Where do you access Riverside?
My loop usually involves heading downtown on Linden and then riding through South Bluffs on Front Street then to Georgia. Then I wait for a break in traffic and launch full speed.
Because that hill is fun!
Yeah, it’s fun, the view opens up in front of you, the wind in your hair, and honestly, I get a little thrill, a little personal satisfaction over taking the lane there.
So from Riverside where do you go? Is there a stop downtown for BBQ?
I don’t eat pork, but yes, it’s the Portabella mushroom sandwich at Central BBQ downtown. I love Central BBQ downtown. It’s a place that I always take visitors.
Is that one more fun than midtown?
For some reason it is. I don’t know why? They’ve got that back room with the bar and the windows are completely open so you don’t know if you’re inside or outside. The last time I was there I think Side Street Steppers were playing and we had some friends visiting from San Francisco and they were just like, “Memphis is the coolest city we’ve ever been to. We love your city!”
Memphis has great non-traditional BBQ, the Portabella sandwich being one of those.
Imagine Vegan actually has a nice Portabella sandwich, I think they call it ‘The Memphis’. And it’s seitan.
Hail seitan! So you’ve gotten your sandwich and you wash it down with? What’s your favorite local beer?
Well, the Memphis Made Rockbone IPA.
Yeah! And it’s such a hilarious story. I always tell it to my friends who are visiting, “This one time, on the NEWS…”
Haha! Yes, and what I love about our local beer brewing community is that they support their local community and organizations and give it right back in a strong way. I do tend toward the local beers and I find that most of the locally owned restaurants are serving local beers which is perfect.
Yeah. So we’ve talked about bikes and beer and BBQ, so now let’s talk about what you do. You are the Executive Director of the Overton Park Conservancy. What is your typical day?
I’m on the phone a lot so my typical day, I try to make sure I get my eyes on the park every day but some days I’m in the business before I arrive and there’s not a moment to get out and enjoy or even observe what’s happening in the park. Most days I try to make a point to see what’s happening. I try to spend some time thinking ahead towards our long-term initiatives. We’re getting ready to launch a master planning effort for the entire park. I’m a big believer in incremental progress because the projects that we work on seem to be huge and take a long time so we have to break them down into pieces. Trying to keep all those projects moving forwards little bits at a time and keeping our stakeholders informed about what we’re doing so my team and I spend a lot of time talking about communications and it’s been a challenge this year with our constraints under our confidentiality agreement which I’m so glad that’s over with so we can talk about what we’re doing.
Thankfully that came to a favorable consensus. A lot of people are happy that they don’t have to worry about that any more. Memphis is doing a great job of attracting new people and a lot of them don’t have an idea of what Memphis was like before we started cleaning up. So paint a picture of Overton Park, pre-Conservancy.
I’m sure you’re aware of how constrained the parks department’s budget is, and that’s reflected in what Overton Park looked like before 2012. So the mowing was on a pretty drawn out schedule during the summer so you would often have knee-high weeds on the grassy areas, the litter was picked up maybe once a week so you would have overflowing trash cans and lots of litter in the park, there were no functioning restrooms, you had portable toilets in the parking lots near each playground that had been there for years and that was it. The playgrounds were in decrepit shape and there was lots of unsavory activity happening. People tell me there were a lot of drug deals and prostitution “transactions” taking place in the park.
You mean like PayPal?
Gosh, I wonder if that’s changed the industry.
Technology disrupts everything!
So I think there was definitely not a sense of vibrancy and I don’t think people were congregating and running into their friends. A lot of people were nervous about [coming to the park], there was a reputation of crime, so the conservancy took over in 2012. Right before we took over management we did a survey of park users and anyone that we could get to answer questions about what they wanted to see in the park; 1600 people responded to that, which is significant, so that helped us develop a list of improvements to make. Right out of the gate we started ticking off that list. People wanted a clean and safe park, they wanted restrooms, they wanted improved playgrounds, they wanted a dog park, they wanted safe and convenient access especially for bikes and pedestrians so that formed the basis of our project list and we developed a 5 year project plan and began ticking off that list. So fast forward 4 ½ short years later we have an amazing landscaping team and janitorial team, both are park supporters and donors and volunteers and they have high quality services so the litter is picked up regularly and the restrooms are spotless and we have a beautiful playground and another that is slated for improvements after we go through our master plan. We have pavilions that people enjoy renting, we’ve got a lot of activity, the dog park is very popular. Really proud that we have been focusing on the Old Forest and on improving access for bikes and pedestrians as our two big focus areas over the last couple of years. We’ve made big progress on those fronts as well. The bike gate was the most obvious for the access improvement, which became an icon for this emerging cycling movement, and then while the progress isn’t visible on the ground yet, we’re excited about the Poplar / Cooper connector, and that it is fully funded!
Yes! That is the question that I run into a whole lot. So when? Let’s get a timeline.
When you start talking about Federal Funding sources you can go ahead and add years to that timeline. So it’s a federal funding source that flowed through the State, then the MPO, then the city. So it’s a City managed project so the City had to jump through a lot of hoops before they could even go to bid for the design phase. So they’re in the design phase now, I think they’ve got that contract wrapped up and I’m hoping that the construction will coincide with the installation of bike lanes on Cooper. And that would be the perfect scenario, that bike lanes on Cooper get wrapped up just as the new entrance gets wrapped up.
That’s probably what’s going to happen. The city has repaving/striping Cooper from Central to Washington on their repaving schedule, but they probably are waiting on this entrance to the park. And it might push those bike lanes out another year.
I’m hoping that 2017 is our year. It’s just what it is, it’s a City project. Some are simpler than others and this one will require moving things around. It’s not just the installation of a trail. It’s going to require navigating some tight spaces and we might have to move two ditch headwalls. We won’t know until we get through the real engineering phase.
Our other focus area is the Old Forest State Natural Area.
You just put in new trail marking signs (which I wrote about here) and they are fabulous. I love them. And I see more and more people talking about the Old Forest and going into and posting pictures. It’s one of my favorite places.
Clearly the park has gotten the reputation of something that people who are new to Memphis or that people who are visiting Memphis need to come see. And that’s gratifying. It means that our work is paying off and that our contribution to the City is bigger than the boundaries of the park. So we’ve been working on improving the ecological health of the Forest, we’ve removed privet from almost all 126 acres of the State Natural Area and we’re tackling kudzu, English Ivy and other invasives. We have a great partnership with Rhodes College so we have dedicated Forestry Fellows every semester doing serious research, trained by our Forester, Eric Bridges, who is overseeing their work.
I’ve seen some nets in the forest, is that one of Eric’s projects?
That is a professor from Rhodes College, who is collecting seeds and doing some research on how seeds propagate in the Old Forest, so I’m really excited to see the results of her research. And SNA’s are categorized into 2 categories, research and recreation, and the OF is primarily a research forest, so recreation is a secondary consideration.
That is very interesting because so many people use this area for recreation.
Right, and more and more people are using it for recreation now that it feels safe and welcoming. So it will be a little bit of a conflict that we have to navigate, we have to make sure that the recreation does not harm the resource, that we don’t let recreation become such a primary use that the forest loses some of its value or becomes irreparably harmed. You know trails can get muddy and trampled and we can heal those wounds but there are some areas where we need to make sure we’re not being destructive.
So what’s next for OPC?
What I’m most excited about is where those two focus areas converge. Which is literally in the Old Forest with the OF gateways which replace those old gateways which felt like a barrier and you weren’t invited to explore. Now we’ve got the bike gate and we’re going to have the Poplar / Cooper Connector and we’ve got the new portal from Yvonne Bobo. Tyler French is designing the portal next to the dog park and Ben Butler’s will be at the East Parkway entrance. We’re also going to do a Master Plan for the entire park and we want everyone to be strong partners in this plan. I’m excited that maybe for the first time in decades we are at a point where we can look at the park holistically, where we have willing partners who are starting to hold a vision for what the park CAN be, and that are excited about that.
So what can the public do to show their support for OPC?
The most important thing that people can do to show that they support the park is to support the park financially. You can donate and become a member on the website.