Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Bass Pro Kiss-Off

More talk and less action means The Pyramid is likely to remain vacant.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 7, 2008 at 4:00 AM

So long, Bass Pro. It was nice knowing you or not knowing you.

Unless you are under the age of 13 or senile, you know a kiss-off when you see one. And the "development agreement" for The Pyramid is a kiss-off, no question about it. More time, more public money, more escape clauses, more unexpected costs. The details are irrelevant. When you're dumped you're dumped, and you can tell by the body language and the look in the eyes. The words are just to soften the blow.

The Pyramid is a white elephant, and Bass Pro was a finicky shopper, browsing at our riverfront yard sale at a time when Wall Street is holding a 70-percent-off sale over in ammo and camo. Bass Pro's super store and headquarters was once the number-one tourist attraction in Missouri, with 3.5 million visitors. But that was in 1998, when outdoor adventure retailers with grand visions were cool and Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake were kids. Today, they're, how to say it, overexposed.

The Memphis City Council will discuss the "agreement" in two weeks. Chairman Scott McCormick, putting a good face on it, says a development agreement is further along than a nonbinding letter of intent. Bass Pro could still wind up as a Pyramid tenant, but its role as master redeveloper is highly unlikely.

Last week (see my column, "The Week That Was," on memphisflyer.com), while a city-county delegation visited Bass Pro's headquarters, I asked several people involved with The Pyramid 20 years ago what they think of its current prospects. Former city mayor Dick Hackett said Bass Pro is "a fabulous organization" and could be a great family tourism magnet, but "the real issue now is the math." Former Shelby County mayor Bill Morris prefers Greg Ericson's plan for a theme park. Former county mayor Jim Rout likes the idea of a combination of Bass Pro and Ericson's idea, but "that's easy to say but maybe difficult to work out." Harbor Town developer Henry Turley said Bass Pro "is a great fit for Memphis." Pat Kerr Tigrett, whose late husband John was the Pyramid visionary, said, "If I had my druthers, I would like something with music potential." Sports Authority veteran Pat Carter said, "Ericson's proposal offers a lot more than Bass Pro is offering." And "Smart City" blogger Tom Jones, who was involved in negotiations for The Pyramid and FedExForum as a county mayoral assistant, makes a strong case for using The Pyramid as a convention center.

Nobody in this group is throwing his or her weight around. None of them has a dog in the hunt anymore. Nobody called me to sound off. I called them. But it's pretty clear that there is nothing close to consensus among well-meaning, well-informed people who have watched downtown ebb and flow for more than 30 years.

One of the troubling things about Bass Pro and The Pyramid is that company founder and owner John Morris shows so little overt personal interest in doing a deal. City point man Robert Lipscomb said he met with him for the first time last week, after years of largely unproductive and inconclusive meetings with subordinates.

Running a half-hearted, half-baked proposal through the gauntlet of point men, the City Council, County Commission, watchdog lawyers and citizens, and two mayors is a surefire recipe for a stalemate. The history of Memphis since 1980 suggests that the way big public-private partnerships get done in downtown Memphis is by employing a ramrod. A ramrod is someone rich, influential, determined, thick-skinned, adept at using the elbows, and willing to look political decision-makers in the eye and ask for the order.

Jack Belz was the ramrod for The Peabody and Peabody Place. John and Pat Tigrett and Fred Smith were the ramrods for The Pyramid. Smith and Billy Dunavant were the ramrods for the expansion of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Turley and Belz were the ramrods for Harbor Town. Dean and Kristi Jernigan were the ramrods for AutoZone Park. Pitt Hyde, FedEx, and Jernigan were the ramrods for NBA Now and FedExForum. Take them out of the picture and those deals don't happen.

And every one of those deals has had its problems. Most did not meet expectations and attendance projections. Which is not to suggest that they failed. They were better than what we had. They were worth the gamble. But a city that has been burned, if not roasted, so many times is apt to be careful about getting burned again.

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