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Feds give $2 million to Memphis landmark for flood that didn’t affect it

By   /   April 30, 2013  /   Comments Off

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

MEMPHIS — An important landmark in American history is about to receive $2 million in federal taxpayer money under the pretense of flood disaster relief — even though the flood in question never came close to hitting it.

The flood, by the way, happened not recently but two years ago.

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, site of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination 45 years ago, sustained no damage when floodwaters from the Mississippi River overcame a few certain low-lying areas of the city.

Most other parts of the city, which sit high on a bluff, sustained no damage either. The flood didn’t impact other Memphis tourist sites, such as downtown Beale Street or Graceland.

The Civil Rights Museum is a nonprofit and generally relies on contributions from corporations and private individuals. The museum will use the $2 million as part of a $40 million renovation project to update its facilities, said museum spokeswoman Connie Dyson.

The reason the museum is getting taxpayer money, according to Development Director Beverly Sakauye, has everything to do with stimulating Memphis’ economy. She and other museum officials said news of a two-year-old flood has scared away tourists.   

LORRAINE MOTEL: site of the MLK assassination in Memphis and now the National Civil Rights Museum (photo by Chris Butler)

LORRAINE MOTEL: site of the MLK assassination in Memphis and now the National Civil Rights Museum (photo by Chris Butler)

“Media coverage on the flood appeared nationwide. Our primary audience is not local, but tourist-driven. We received many calls from people and groups who cancelled their trips.

“Usually our earned revenue stream is strong and way above industry averages, so the flood negatively affected attendance and thus our earned revenue,” Sakauye told Tennessee Watchdog in an e-mail.

The federal Economic Development Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is awarding the $2 million to the museum as part of a $200 million nationwide initiative to help communities that are reportedly in economic distress after a natural disaster.

Numerous attempts to interview EDA officials were unsuccessful.

According to the EDA’s criteria, these disasters must have occurred in 2010 or 2011.

Economic Development Administration

Economic Development Administration

Communities that receive the money are to use them for what the EDA calls long-term economic redevelopment strategies.

Officials from Memphis city government and the city’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, however, told Tennessee Watchdog that the city has long since recovered from the 2011 flood.

“Yes, when it happened it was a negative impact on our travel industry. That decline affected the entire travel season for 2011,” said Regena Bearden, vice president of marketing for the Memphis CVB.

“The floods of 2011, though, are not affecting business today. Somebody from another state looking at Memphis today as a possible vacation spot would not have their decision affected by the flood from two years ago.”

City spokesman George Little said the flood never hurt tourism much even in 2011.

“If anything, it drew people to the river to see that once in a lifetime spectacle. We’ve got plenty of other issues to deal with here, but the potential impact of flooding is not one of them as it relates to tourism,” Little said.

In a follow-up e-mail, Tennessee Watchdog asked Sakauye to back up her statement that

Regena Bearden

Regena Bearden

the 2011 flood continues to hurt tourism at the museum itself. Specifically, Tennessee Watchdog asked her to provide attendance numbers for 2010 (the year before the flood), 2011, and 2012, as a basis for comparison.

Sakauye did not respond to that e-mail, so Tennessee Watchdog asked again the next day. Sakauye responded, but said she could not answer due to other obligations.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org

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