New leader building bridges for riverfront group

Downtown revitalization efforts entered a new era on March 26 when the Riverfront Development Corporation tapped native Memphian Carol Coletta to be the nonprofit’s new president and CEO.

Coletta replaces longtime CEO Benny Lendermon, who is retiring at the end of April.

We are excited to welcome a new leader who has both national stature and hometown knowledge and credibility,” RDC board president John Farris said in a statement. “This is our moment to create the riverfront Memphis deserves.”

Coletta currently works as a senior fellow for the Kresge Foundation, the Michigan-based nonprofit that is funding Memphis’ Fourth Bluff effort as part of its national Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative. In a unique arrangement, she will actually serve the RDC as a “loaned executive” from the Kresge Foundation. Her salary will be paid by Kresge, for whom Coletta will, in addition to her RDC duties, continue to serve as a sort of local facilitator with no grant-making power.

“My job has been to help Kresge understand who’s doing what and where I saw opportunities to fund good work” Coletta says of the foundation, which funds nearly 20 organizations locally. “Kresge is very happy with its relationship with Memphis and particularly other Memphis funders. So Kresge will continue to be a presence in Memphis, and I expect that presence to grow.”

Coletta takes over the reins of the RDC at a critical time in its history. In the coming months the RDC will announce a rebranding of the 17-year-old organization as well as an organizational overhaul widely expected to adopt a conservancy model, a type of public-private partnership that has been very successful in revitalizing Shelby Farms and Overton Park.

More significantly, the RDC is tasked with implementing the recently released Memphis Riverfront Concept, an expansive reimagining of six miles of the riverfront as envisioned by the internationally lauded design form Studio Gang. To help fund that effort, the RDC, which has largely relied on city funds, is aggressively fundraising.

Having already worked closely on a lot of the efforts surrounding downtown and the riverfront, including the Fourth Bluff, Coletta’s appointment allows the RDC to transition into its next phase without the organization missing a beat.

“This is kind of the opportunity of a lifetime, and I’m really excited,” Coletta says of the challenge ahead of her. “We’ve got a lot of money to raise, but I look at this as creating a better future for Memphis.”

Coletta, who was recently named one of the 100 most influential urbanists of all time by the urban planning web site Planetizen, brings almost two decades experience of dealing with issues of urban revitalization. The University of Memphis graduate ran her own public affairs firm before helping start the policy-focused Smart City Consulting in the early 2000s. For nearly a decade, she also hosted a related public radio show, “Smart Cities,” that examined new urban ideas and trends.

Coletta served as executive director of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, U.S. Conference of Mayors and American Architectural Foundation. She led ArtPlace, a public-private collaboration to accelerate creative place-making in communities across the U.S. and was president and CEO of CEOs for Cities for seven years. More recently she was vice president of Community and National Initiatives for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. In February 2016, she became a senior fellow at the Kresge Foundation.