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Once upon a time, a person leaving the house might likely be on the way to the office. Or to a movie or concert. A bar or restaurant. A museum or gallery. 

People still go to those places, of course, as the city “reopens” for business. But increasingly, due to the threat of the coronavirus, Memphians who leave the house remain outdoors, where the air circulates naturally and where social distancing is easy.

These Memphians are hiking and biking. Running. Climbing. Ambling. Kayaking. Walking the dog. 

This is not just an it-seems-logical-so-it-must-be-true observation based on anecdotal eyeball evidence. According to Nicholas Oyler, bikeway and pedestrian program manager for the city division of engineering, it’s a fact.

For example, in late March, after the Memphis shutdowns, close to 6,000 bicyclists and pedestrians activated counters on the Wolf River Greenway near Humphreys Boulevard, according to city data. That number represents a record and an increase in the thousands for the location, which saw only about 2,200 users in 2015, the year monitoring began.

These “counters” — infrared beams and pneumatic tubes that tabulate pedestrian and bike traffic at such locations as Shelby Farms, the Greater Memphis Greenline, the Big River Crossing — provide evidence that supports a new effort intended to boost Memphis as a destination for outdoor activity, to complement the city’s well-established identity as the home of Graceland, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and other must-sees for music-loving tourists.

As the website states on its homepage: “Nothing Says Social Distancing Like Getting Closer to Nature.”

The effort is the brainchild of Memphis public relations executive Doug Carpenter, founder of Doug Carpenter + Associates, a communications and consulting firm. 

Carpenter, 56, describes “Discover Memphis Naturally” as “an opportunity to put something very positive in the marketplace that could have long-term benefits for our culture, our citizens and our industries.”

“I see our outdoor assets as helping to provide an answer to economic and health issues created by COVID,” he said. “I also see a really relevant dynamic related to issues of Black Lives Matter. If you go to Overton Park, Shelby Farms, the river parks, you will see what I believe is the true identity of our community. It is incredibly diverse and incredibly congenial.”

Even before the COVID-19 shutdowns, Carpenter said he had been pondering ways to promote the “outdoor category” of Memphis culture, for residents as well as visitors. The pandemic accelerated his interest into a creative challenge that felt timely and even urgent.

With funding contributions of $5,000 to $20,000 from about a dozen sources, including Memphis Tourism and the Downtown Memphis Commission, and input from Shelby Farms, the Wolf River Greenway, Mighty Lights, the Big River Crossing, Explore Bike Share, Curious Bike Tours, the River Line and Big River Trail and other entities, Carpenter’s agency developed “Discover Memphis Naturally” to be useful for residents as well as visitors. 

Categories on the website include “Bike It,” “Paddle It,” “Climb It,” “Park It” and “View It.” “Memphis has over 300 miles of on-and-off-road bike paths for you to explore,” reports the “Bike It” page. “View It” recommendations include manmade as well as natural scenic wonders, such as the “I Am a Man” sculpture at Clayborn Temple.

“Memphis has always had a dynamic outdoors scene, from the Mississippi River to our world class parks,” said Kevin Kane, president and CEO of Memphis Tourism. “Having a robust outdoors scene adds to our music, culture and culinary offerings.”

Based on data that indicates most vacationers this year plan to restrict their travel to places they can reach easily by car, Memphis Tourism will promote the website most heavily within a 600-mile radius of Memphis, to lure visitors from Nashville, Little Rock, Birmingham, St. Louis, Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Chicago.

Although the pandemic has increased interest in the outdoors, the local emphasis on what the website calls “outdoor amenities and experiences” began long before the arrival of COVID-19, with public and private sources devoting millions of dollars in recent years to bike paths, “green lines,” the Big River Crossing pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi River and other developments that provide a healthful alternative to the city’s barbecue-and-blues-based attractions. 

Carpenter said the “Discover Memphis Naturally” initiative is an ongoing process that will expand as the city adds to its “outdoor amenities and experiences.”

“The expectation is this not a campaign that goes away when COVID goes away but a campaign that remains a part of our city’s marketing and communication landscape,” he said.


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