George Abbott
Feb 21 · 5 min read
Jim Holt (CEO), Floyd Benson (VP of Operations), and Barry Yoakum (Board Chair) at a coordination meeting with Studio Gang and Memphis River Parks Partnership in late 2017.

Studio Gang, Memphis River Parks Partnership and Memphis in May have collaborated closely since the beginning.

The staff and board at Memphis in May have been an integral part of the design process for the new Tom Lee Park. The very first action Studio Gang took following the completion of the Memphis Riverfront Concept (before design began) was to sit down with the team and understand the exact specifications for the festival.


  • August 2017: Memphis Riverfront Concept published.
  • September 2017: First coordination meeting between Memphis in May and Studio Gang.
  • April 2018: Recommendations and preliminary festival layouts finalized.
  • October 2018: Programmatic design for Tom Lee Park begins — to specifications defined by Memphis in May.
  • January 2019: Final coordination meeting with Memphis in May. Draft test fits for Beale Street Music Festival and World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest reviewed by Memphis in May staff.
  • February 2019: Engagement center launched and programmatic design for Tom Lee Park published.

The design is built on Memphis in May’s detailed specifications.

Some of the compromises in the park design to allow for major festivals include:

Three great lawns sized for festival-size crowds

The three great lawns that dominate the park are sized to accommodate more than 30,000 patrons for Beale Street Music Festival. Assuming 6 square feet per person, roughly the amount of space you’d expect at a standing cocktail party, the lawns can accommodate even more — 42,000 patrons. The lawns are located next to Riverside Drive for easier access and load-in.

“Hardened” lawns and improved drainage to reduce the mud-pit

Today, Tom Lee Park has drainage issues that combine with the stress of thousands of festival-goers to produce muddy conditions almost annually. The park is built on an Army Corps of Engineers dike. Beneath a couple of feet of top soil, the material below is heavily-compacted river bed that’s about as permeable as concrete. The lawns will be hardened with geoengineered fiber soil, stormwater gardens added and drainage improved so that the park is less likely to become “Memphis in Mud”. This will also help BBQ teams have a solid footing upon which to build their elaborate team booths.

A multi-purpose Center Court easily adaptable for concerts

The Center Court is being designed to be easily adaptable as a concert venue so that it can quickly, cheaply and easily be built out as the blues tent or BBQ judging court. A sound system will be integrated into the venue so that it is, essentially, plug and play and much easier than building a completely new tent. Center Court will provide 21,000 square feet of usable space — much bigger than the 15,000 square feet requested by Memphis in May.

Relocated utilities to support stages and back-of-house operations

Appropriate utility hookups will be located at each stage as well as along Riverside Drive for back-of-house support functions.

Appropriately-located hardscapes for stage footings, vendor operations and emergency vehicle access

The new design provides 30’ wide sidewalks so 18-wheelers can access each stage footing without needing to drive on any grass. Stages can now be built on hardscape (rather than grass) and the appropriate utilities will be easily available. Vendors are able to set up on the more than 165,000 square feet of hardscape in the ‘riffle’ section of the park and will find appropriately-located utility hookups in place. A network of 12’-19’ wide emergency egress paths are located throughout.

These advantages for festival producers are built into the design and will combine to make festival production cheaper, easier and quicker while also producing a festival environment and landscape that is unmatched nationwide. These enhancements will also open the door to more festivals and major events being held in the new Tom Lee Park. Already, multiple event producers have expressed interest in producing smaller festivals and concerts in the new park.

The design for Tom Lee Park meets or exceeds specifications requested for Beale Street Music Festival and World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

Memphis in May will continue to produce its own site plans. The test fits below demonstrate how the new design can house an even larger Memphis in May.

Beale Street Music Festival

The three great lawns have been sized to increase the unobstructed square footage in front of stages from about 235,000 square feet to more than 252,000 square feet.

Existing Beale Street Music Festival capacity.
Proposed Beale Street Music Festival capacity.
Beale Street Music Festival test fit.

World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest

Studio Gang have produced two alternate site plans for World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Both test fits can accommodate 285 teams in variously sized booths. The test fits aim to place as many teams on hardscape as possible while maximizing river views.

This test fit accommodates 285 teams in Tom Lee Park’s existing footprint.
This test fit extends the festival north on Riverside Drive.

There is no conflict between a great park and a great festival.

The new design will produce a vibrant, dynamic and active riverfront that Memphians can be proud of 365 days a year. It can also improve the festival experience for attendees and organizers.

From our first design meetings to the latest site plans we have acted on the principle that a reimagined Tom Lee Park will respond to the needs of Memphis in May and that the success of one is the success of the other.

Together, Memphis in May and a renewed Tom Lee Park can create an economic powerhouse for Memphis. Because of this economic impact for Memphis, this is not an “either-or” but a “both” opportunity to expand the economy.

The founders of Memphis in May began the festival because they wanted to stimulate the economy, improve the city’s national profile, amplify our local assets, break down walls between Memphians, and deliver a strong brand for Memphis. We share those objectives and look forward to a reimagined Tom Lee Park hosting great Memphis in May festivals.


Memphis River Parks Partnership works with and for the people of Memphis to trigger the transformative power of our river.

George Abbott

Written by

Director of External Affairs — Memphis River Parks Partnership


Memphis River Parks Partnership works with and for the people of Memphis to trigger the transformative power of our river.

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