Wednesday, August 17, 2011

“First, Best, and Only”

Bass Pro Pyramid is centerpiece of city’s “game changer.”

Posted By on Wed, Aug 17, 2011 at 1:39 PM

In two years, The New York Times, assuming it is still around, could be writing one of its "36 Hours In ..." weekend travel articles about Memphis that goes something like this:

Saturday morning: Shop and gawk at the Bass Pro superstore in the reinvented 300-foot-tall Pyramid on the Mississippi River.

Saturday afternoon: Lunch in Harbor Town, Memphis' riverfront planned community, followed by a visit to Beale Street Landing, the $40 million park and boat dock. Dip your hands and feet in the river, then walk Tom Lee Park and the Bluffwalk.

Saturday night: Dinner at the Rendezvous, Grizzlies basketball game at FedExForum (or baseball at AutoZone Park, depending on the season), clubbing on Beale Street, overnight stay at the Peabody.

Sunday morning: Coffee and breakfast followed by a photo session on the Peabody rooftop. Rent a road bike or electric-assisted Aerobic Cruiser for a ride to Overton Park and the Memphis Zoo in Midtown then back downtown to bike across the Harahan Bridge over the Mississippi River to Arkansas.

Sunday afternoon: Lunch at Gus's Fried Chicken and visit the National Civil Rights Museum.

It would be a pretty attractive package of healthy exercise, history, shopping, food, unique attributes, and the river. In a presentation to the Memphis City Council Tuesday, backers called Bass Pro a "game changer" in a tourism strategy focused on Memphis attributes that are "first, best, and only."

The projected opening date for the Bass Pro Pyramid is August 2013. The promised benefits include 1,665 construction jobs, 576 permanent jobs, and 2 million to 4 million visitors a year.

And it seems to be within reach now that — dare anyone say it — the long march to the construction of the Bass Pro Pyramid has reached the last mile with city council approval of a financing package.

Those visitors better show up, because their sales taxes are supposed to pay for it. In the latest plan, the city will acquire Shelby County's interest in the Memphis Cook Convention Center. Phase One of the Bass Pro deal, which includes everything west of Front Street, could cost $185 million, with $33 million from Bass Pro Shops. Phase Two includes the Pinch District retail — for which there is no private developer so far — the convention center makeover, and an expansion of the Marriott Hotel.

The proposed $185 million bond issue is up from $125 million last November, when the financing application was filed with the Center City Commission. About $25 million of the increased cost is due to earthquake protection retrofitting.

Proposed features include an aquarium, restaurants, hotel, and possibly a bowling alley and shooting range inside the Pyramid, an elevator to the observation deck, a grand entrance from the south starting at Jefferson, boat demonstrations in the harbor, and an indoor swamp underlying the retail space.

"It's really going to be an experience, something like you have never seen before," said housing and community development director Robert Lipscomb, Bass Pro's steadfast champion for the last six years. "The collateral investment in the convention center makeover and the Pinch District retail are as important as everything else."

If the convention center and the tourism development zone don't generate enough of a revenue stream to pay off the bonds, taxpayers will be on the hook. The council's resolution authorizes "certain debt service reserve support of such bonds."

Lipscomb calls that "the worst-case scenario." To which some Memphians, if not some council members, might say, "So what else is new?" This is the same council that is under the gun for not paying a court-ordered $57 million to Memphis City Schools and cutting city employees' pay by 4 percent. And the same Pyramid that has been closed for seven years in the forlorn Pinch District.

In "Memphis: City of Choice," that is so yesterday. The mantra for the future is "build on what we are."

Pending approval by the city council and Shelby County Commission, which has to sign off on the transfer of the convention center, construction is scheduled to begin on October 1st.

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