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Memphis in May: Humble Beginnings to $88 Million Impact

The following article is featured in the 2017 Spring Issue of Memphis Crossroads MagazineClick here to read more from this issue. 

WCBCC-River-Crowd.jpgEach May, most Memphians can sense something special in the air here – and it’s not just the smell of mouth-watering barbecue. On the streets, people smile a bit more. There’s a little more pep in everyone’s step. Everything feels energized, as if the heart of the city beats just a little harder. Simply put, each May, residents and visitors alike embrace the best that Memphis has to offer and fall in love with it – either for the first time or all over again.
Welcome to Memphis in May, our favorite time of year.
“It’s one of the things that really defines our city. It’s a major profile driver for the city nationally and internationally,” said James Holt, president and CEO of Memphis in May. “Memphis in May is really the Mardi Gras for Memphis – it’s the Kentucky Derby here.”
For more than 40 years, Memphis in May has been celebrating everything that’s wonderful and distinctive about this city. And while most attendees can list some, if not all, of the festival’s cornerstones – the World Champion Barbecue Cooking Contest, Beale Street Music Festival and our annual International Salute – many of them might not be aware of some of the more little-known facts about Memphis in May. So particularly now, after last year’s 40th anniversary, it’s the perfect time to shine a spotlight on the festival’s history, economic impact and behind-the-scenes team.
BM2T5274s.jpgA beloved tradition has deep roots
Considering its massive scope and impact today, many people might be surprised to learn that Memphis in May actually had very humble beginnings. At its introduction in 1976, it primarily served as a catch-all category for several important events at the time. Then named the Memphis in May International Festival Society, it encompassed the Cotton Carnival, the annual Metropolitan Opera Visit, the Danny Thomas Golf Classic, America’s Bicentennial Celebration and the grand opening of the Cook Convention Center.
However, there was a vision for that festival concept to grow and – like many great ideas in this city – that seed was planted by the Greater Memphis Chamber, then known as the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce.
“The Chamber got it going. They had some office space and there was a little funding left over from the bicentennial celebration, so they said, ‘Let’s do something special downtown’ because downtown was a ghost town back then,” Holt said. “We had a great group of civic-minded people who said, ‘Let’s get something started to celebrate our city.’”
The following year, the renamed Memphis in May International Festival – under a new nonprofit status, a budget of about $50,000 and the leadership of its first board president,  Lyman Aldrich, and group of civic volunteers – incorporated the first Beale Street Music Festival, Sunset Symphony and International Salute (to Japan that year). The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest joined the lineup in 1978.
As Memphis in May has continued to expand, the Greater Memphis Chamber’s support of the event has, of course, remained constant, said Phil Trenary, president and CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber.
“It’s something that I hope people don’t take for granted, because it’s been here year in and year out for a lot of us,” he said. “It’s very important that the entire community – not just the business community – support it.”
Tanner-Morris-Photography-BSMF-2016-Finals-183.jpg‘It doesn’t cost the taxpayers a dollar.’
Holt said the most common misunderstanding about Memphis in May is that it’s financially fueled by the city.
“There’s some misconception among people in the community that we’re funded by the City of Memphis, which we’re not. In fact, the festival is self-sustaining,” he said. “We receive no underwriting funding from the city, county or state. Memphis in May does so much and it doesn’t cost the taxpayers a dollar.”
Memphis in May requires more than $8.5 million annually to make its iconic events possible, and it receives those funds from corporate sponsors, donors, admission fees, concessions, merchandise and participation fees.
“We’ve got some tremendously civic-minded companies and corporations in the city that support Memphis,” Holt said. “They recognize that we contribute to the quality of life here, that we contribute to a positive brand image for the city, and that we provide very positive educational programs based on our annual international honored country for our local students each year.”
While the fact that a nonprofit organization orchestrates the city’s most celebrated event is impressive in itself, the real eye-opener is how much Memphis in May gives back. And no, we’re not just talking warm, fuzzy feelings – although that’s true as well. We’re talking money – more than $88 million, to be exact.
In August 2016, economic development consulting firm Younger Associates released a commissioned report on Memphis in May’s economic impact that year.
“The total amount of money that flowed through the Shelby County economy as a result of all of the activity surrounding Memphis in May was $88 million,” said Sharon Younger, president of Younger Associates. “Most of that money was generated by visitor dollars – people coming in for the festival from outside of Shelby County and spending dollars doing various things while they were in town.”
The report also notes that Memphis in May generated more than $2.8 million in city and county taxes and created 1,138 jobs. And, as Younger’s study illustrates, the festival is of course a major tourism boom for the city.
Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, says May is the busiest month of the year for visitors to Memphis.
“Memphis in May is certainly one of the critical assets of our tourism and hospitality industry. It brings in people from all over the country and from different parts of the world. It’s an opportunity for us to showcase Memphis to people who possibly wouldn’t come here otherwise.” he said. “The weekend of our barbecue competition and the weekend of music fest are almost always sellouts for the city – that’s something we can’t say year in and year out about anyother weekend.”
WCBCC-Stage-Kerr-(1).JPGA well-oiled machine run by passionate people
While the results of the Younger Associates impact study are impressive, Younger hopes people don’t get too caught up in the numbers alone.
“There’s also a second impact that’s just as important and that’s the entertainment value Memphis in May presents to people who live here and enjoy the festival,” she said. “It also gives us a great quality of life, a sense of place, a wonderful amenity and it’s a signature event for Memphis that people take a lot of pride in – we can’t put a dollar value on that.”
The team responsible for the smooth operation of this invaluable community asset today has vastly evolved from the early team that took on the task when the Chamber first got it rolling.
“It started as a completely volunteer-run effort with a $50,000 budget,” Holt said. “It’s now grown into an organization that operates a $9 million budget, a full-time staff of 14 and about 900 community volunteers.”
The festival is also governed by a 21-member board of directors ranging from civic to corporate leaders. Stacy McCall, CEO and president of ServiceMaster by Stratos, is one of them. For her, she says it’s important to serve on the Memphis in May board for several reasons.
“Serving as a board member allows me to contribute not only professionally, but personally, with an organization that promotes and celebrates Memphis and its culture, while also providing economic growth and a key educational component for the children of Memphis," she said.
Like Younger, McCall looks beyond the straight numbers when measuring the impact that Memphis in May has on Memphis.
"I look at Memphis in May’s economic impact from a different side of the equation than the actual dollar amount,” McCall said. “I look at it from the people side of things, and I get excited when I hear about how it supports the increase in local employment, which spreads throughout the local economy. Memphis in May continues to improve the quality of life for Memphians, and I’m so excited to be part of an organization that has such a tremendous ongoing economic impact here.”

Story by Erinn Figg

Posted: 5/1/2017 3:45:04 PM | with 0 comments
Filed under: MemphisCrossroads, MemphisinMay

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