Friday, February 17, 2006

Big Pointy Bait Shop

Face it. The Pyramid is a white elephant, and Bass Pro would be a catch.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 17, 2006 at 4:00 AM

The proposed marriage of Bass Pro and The Pyramid makes sense, and Memphis officials and business leaders should try to make it happen.

The wisecracks about bait shops are foolish, not funny. Anyone who has been in a Bass Pro store or any other modern sporting-goods retailer knows they sell $89 Merrill shoes, $1,000 fly rods, and $12,000 bass boats in addition to hooks and plastic worms. And that's just a tiny fraction of the merchandise, restaurants, and stuff to do at a full-fledged Bass Pro or Cabela's.

If they want to put a hologram or some other design of a bass on one side of The Pyramid, so what? The Sterick Building and the 100 North Main Building, the next tallest structures downtown, are advertising-free, but they also are either empty or nondescript. Is that better?

The Memphis skyline could use a little pizzazz. There hasn't been a new building more than 150 feet tall since The Pyramid, and there isn't likely to be one in the near future.

Hunting and fishing -- like casinos, basketball, and music -- cross color and class lines. There's more diversity in a crowded Bass Pro store than you'll find at Carriage Crossing or Laurelwood. Retailing hits Memphis in its financial sweet spot -- our 9.25 percent sales tax. As a taxpayer, I would just as soon someone else, preferably from out of town, paid a share of the cost of running our city.

The Pyramid is a landmark, with low mileage and acres of parking and an on-off ramp to Interstate 40. If the remaining city and county debt had been rolled in with the cost of FedExForum as part of the price of the Grizzlies, there would not be much grumbling about it. Anyway, tearing it down would cost several million dollars, and the debt would still be there. The glass-enclosed top of The Pyramid, accessible only by an interior stairwell, is one of the coolest spaces in Memphis, but few people have ever seen it. Comparisons to Diane's, the old revolving restaurant atop the 100 North Main Building, don't do it justice. Let's see if Bass Pro can make it accessible and maybe figure out a way to get more mileage out of Mud Island and the convention center to boot.

The financing will be complicated and questionable, but how many visitors are thinking about financing when they go to a Grizzlies game or a ballgame at AutoZone Park? Memphis officials want to use something called New Market Tax Credits, a federal incentive for low-income neighborhoods that provides a bottom-line deduction of 39 percent of the cost of the project over seven years. It's a stretch to call The Pyramid and neighboring Mud Island a low-income neighborhood. Downtown hogs way more than its share of such incentives. I would prefer to see them spent in Midtown where I live. I would prefer to see The Pyramid given to a casino company, which would pay all of the redevelopment costs and then some for the privilege of keeping gamblers' money in Memphis. But those things are not going to happen.

The right people are involved in this deal. Face it. This is a salvage job, a white elephant. Egos are not much of a factor. Nobody is going to be associated with The Pyramid in its next incarnation in the way that the late John Tigrett was associated with its initial approval and construction. Reuse committee member Scott Ledbetter was involved with the unsuccessful effort to lure the Grammy museum to The Pyramid in 2000. That's a handy bit of experience. Tom Garrott, another committee member, is a retired banker who helped drive the stock of National Bank of Commerce to lofty heights. What's more, he's rich, he's a sportsman, and he's from Tunica. There's nothing in this for him, and I want him on our side when Tunica inevitably makes its own pitch for Bass Pro or Cabela's.

Tunica and DeSoto County take hundreds of millions of dollars out of Memphis year after year. Big deals like FedExForum and Bass Pro, for all their costs, keep some of the dollars and entertainment in Memphis. If you're concerned about Bass Pro's foot-dragging in Buffalo, where a similar salvage job is under way, you haven't been to Buffalo. Memphis has its shortcomings but it also has its advantages, and it should exploit them to close a deal with Bass Pro. If it gets us a few Jeff Foxworthy jokes about bait shops, so be it.

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