Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bass Pro in The Pyramid? Council and Commission Get Briefed

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2008 at 4:00 AM

It's not exactly the University of Memphis Tigers vs. the Tennessee Volunteers, but the other game in town this week pits the Bass Pro Hunters and Fishermen vs. Ericson's Theme Park Thrill-riders. After sessions of the City Council Tuesday and Shelby County Commission Wednesday, here's how it looks.

And the winner is ... No contest. CASINO. Since we're just talking anyway. Assume the remaining debt: check. Attract visitors: check. Build hotel: check. Track record: check. Employ a lot of people: check. Sustainable: check. Pay taxes: check. Meet the challenge of Tunica: check. Feasibility: only with state enabling legislation. And there's the catch.

But the more talk there is about the merits of a Bass Pro or a theme park, the more hollow the arguments sound and the more apparent the financial benefits of a casino become. And while Six Flags stock is down from $40 to under $2 in the last ten years and ammo-and-camo retailers Gander Mountain and Cabela's are off 60-70 percent since a year ago, Harrah's, which was once headquartered in Memphis, is trading this week at $89.97, a 52-week high. When it comes to recession-proof entertainment, the market has spoken. Memphis is trolling in the backwaters. Mississippi won. Game over.

So get back to reality. Who's on which team?

The Bass Pro champion-by-default is city official Robert Lipscomb, which, no offense to Lipscomb, is one of the things the matter with it. No big project successfully navigates the city, county, and state political gauntlet with a government employee at the helm. It takes a ramrod with clout and commitment. If Bass Pro has one, you’d never know.

In three hours of meeting Tuesday and Wednesday, I did not hear a single councilman or commissioner express unreserved support for Bass Pro, which has been playing footsie for three years. I count council member Barbara Ware as probable. She cared enough to make the trip to Missouri a couple weeks ago.

On the commission, there was only skepticism and silence. Since Lipscomb works for Mayor Willie Herenton, I guess I'd count Herenton as leaning favorable. Greg Ericson is captain of the Theme Park Thrill-riders. I'd count Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton as leaning to his team, with commissioner Steve Mulroy the most enthusiastic backer. Ericson got a boost when county financial expert Jim Huntzicker pronounced his financing credible.

Who's opposed to what? That's the problem with having Lipscomb or any government servant as point man. He's open to all sorts of skepticism, where a Fred Smith, Dean Jernigan, Jack Belz, or Pitt Hyde would get some slack. The easiest thing to do in politics (and journalism) is point out shortcomings; the hardest is to get something done.

On the council, Jim Strickland had some tough questions about giving Bass Pro exclusivity for another year. "It is time to date other people," he said.

Shea Flinn and Reid Hedgepeth want to reopen the request for proposals if Mud Island is going to be in play. Harold Collins asked some tough but polite questions about possible conflicts of interest involving architect and former councilman Tom Marshall. Wanda Halbert noted that many people still have no idea what Bass Pro is.

On the commission, Mike Ritz and Mulroy are skeptical that $30 million in federal funds will come through or, if it does, that Bass Pro won't ask for more. They have only Lipscomb's word, backed by a loose agreement, that $30 million is the limit.

The opposition to Ericson's theme park hasn't really solidified for two reasons: One, Bass Pro is first in line. Ericson was relegated to spectator and not allowed to comment this week while Lipscomb explained why consultants rejected a theme park. The second reason is that his proposal includes both The Pyramid and Mud Island, and assumes that the developer will buy the land.

Leaving aside the credibility of an indoor and outdoor theme park and hotels, the land sale of public property, much less riverfront public property, is a big deal. If Bass Pro goes away for good and the Thrill-riders take center stage, there will be plenty of opponents and skeptics. As Flinn said, if we are talking about only The Pyramid, then Bass Pro is the only option. Or a church, Lipscomb says, citing Houston and Los Angeles and their unused arenas.

What is the earthquake issue? Marshall, aided by seismic experts hired by Bass Pro, told the council and commission that earthquake threat was nearly a deal-breaker as recently as last weekend. He said Bass Pro wants to build a hotel inside the Pyramid and, at one time, wanted to remove the "ceiling" which is also the floor of the observation deck. But structural issues forced them to change the hotel plan from seven stories to six stories and scrap the idea of knocking out the ceiling.

Memphis and earthquakes have been mentioned in the same breath since the river supposedly ran backwards in Andy Jackson's day. Earthquake resistance was a big deal when The Pyramid was being built because of the San Francisco quake of 1989 and Iben Browning's well-publicized prediction of a calamitous Memphis quake on December 3, 1990, that never came. Marshall told commissioners the seismic code changed in 2003. But that doesn't explain why Bass Pro waited until 2007 to bring it up. Using surrogates to put forth excuses for its delays is hurting, not helping, the Hunters and Fishermens' cause.

Are we there yet? No, but we might be closer to some sort of decision. Even when the most powerful and credible businessmen in Memphis were ram-rodding projects, there were years of debates and meetings. Bass Pro is finally being vetted, and Ericson may get his turn. If he does, then Mud Island will automatically be part of the discussion. The new members of the council and commission seemed thoughtful, attentive, and aware of the pitfalls of both action and inaction.

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