COMMENTARY: THE NOT-SO-GREAT AMERICAN PYRAMID 

COMMENTARY: THE NOT-SO-GREAT AMERICAN PYRAMID

AN ARM AT REST Has anyone seen the shovel from the Big Dig? Memphis sure could use it right now to help dig the Great American Pyramid out of its debt and its no-compete clause

The Pyramid was a great idea, poorly implemented. Since it could not be done right, it should have been shelved. Political (and many other) compromises conspired to make John Tigrett’s vision for a river-city symbol abjectly fail at every turn. Memphis needed a symbolic civic boost after the decades-long pain of the post-MLK assassination, the depressed economy of the ‘70s, and the poorly thought-out public projects like the Main Street mall and Mud Island.

Things did not go smoothly from jump. Perhaps this negativity was a harbinger of things to come. Rain postponed the festivities of the Big Dig the first night. On opening night, the toilets of the Pyramid overflowed at the Judds’ concert. Sidney Schlenker, the impresario who just months earlier had been crowned “Memphian of the Year” by Memphis Magazine declared bankruptcy (not personally, just for his Rakapolis development companies) and sent the Pyramid into amenity limbo for eternity.

The following is a list of promised attractions and amenities that never arrived in the Pyramid: a glass inclinator leading to an observation deck; Dick Clark’s American Music Awards Hall of Fame; a Stax Recording studio reproduction; the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame; the College Football Hall of Fame (with a statue of Red Grange as focal point!); Rakapolis Egyptian theme park on Mud Island; a Hard Rock Café; Omnimax Theater; Island Earth Ecopark; and a shortwave radio station broadcasting Memphis music internationally 24/7. These were the ideas publicly promised, not ones bandied about. There was even a fake bomb scare in the Pyramid, pre-911.

What did arrive was a human-unfriendly building with poor parking, inferior sight lines, bad sound, and cramped seating -- with the whole building situated, as Tom Waits would say, “Waaaay down in the Hole.” Volunteers from church groups ran the concessions; the food was as bad as one would expect from such organizations. Although The Pyramid was ostensibly built to host concerts and sporting events, the sound for concerts was so bad that the city sued the contractor for faulty acoustical design. Workers retroactively added padded strips to absorb the sound. Even Isaac Tigrett’s mysterious crystal skull time capsule was retrieved within a year of the Pyramid’s opening, creating both an ownership controversy and ruining the marketing surprise he had planned. [Editor's note: The crystal fixture was revealed in an article by the Flyer's John Branston and subsequently removed.]

Despite having better locations for a proud city’s coming-out statement than under a bridge in a hole by a concrete company, The Pyramid’s powers-that-be chose the worst of four locations. (The best would have been up on the South Bluffs, adding immensely to the Memphis skyline. Ironically, one of the other four locations discussed was the current FedEx Forum location). One result of the poor implementation may have been that a decent political career by former Mayor Dick Hackett ended prematurely. The much ballyhooed Pinch District redevelopment never occurred. In fact, the first signs of growth in fifteen years in the Pinch District came with the abandonment of The Pyramid’s tenants.

So where is The Pyramid now? It sits in political limbo and financial chaos carrying a debt service of $30 million with no chance of hosting concert or sporting events because of yet another horrendous deal. The Pyramid continues to haunt political careers. In what surely must be the worst deal ever cut by Memphis politicians, former County Mayor Rout and current Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton handed near-billionaire Michael Heisley a virtual concert monopoly business in one of the top fifty concert markets in the country, on top of his free new stadium and corporate headquarters.

A blue-ribbon committee has been selected to hire out-of-town consultants to assess the future of the Pyramid. The original reasons for the creation of The Pyramid are no longer legally viable nor useful. This week, in a local news report, one of the consultants blithely commented, “I like it better on the outside than on the inside.” No shucks, Sherlock. That has been the problem since it opened. (And you get paid $100,000 for comments like that?)

So what to do now? The city can’t afford the $30 million debt service in the face of mismanaged fiscal crisis after fiscal crisis. Memphis has turned lemons into lemonade before, with the Lorraine Motel and the Stax Museum. Let’s call “Uncle” on this once grand project. Throw in the towel. Time for Mayor Herenton to show some real leadership and pick up the phone. Call Gary Loveman at Harrah’s. Beg him to take it off our hands for free. Let Harrah’s do what they do best: make money. This Tomb of Doom would become the Gold Mine that all would have hoped for back in 1990. Take the normal gambling tax cut and kill two birds with one stone. While we’re at it, why not make it the biggest and best sports book in the South? Think big for once, Memphis. That is the kind of shooting for the stars that got the Pyramid’s finest sporting eventÑthe Mike Tyson fight.

Obviously casino gaming and sports betting are currently illegal in Memphis. The same oligarchic corporate forces that got the Pyramid built in the first place could muster up gaming legislation if it really wanted. This cabal would have the support of the East Memphis developers who are so opposed to Mayor Wharton’s proposed real estate taxes. The anti-gaming moralists (who obviously don’t get out much since gaming is across the river, across the state line, at the Tiger Mart, as well as online, and has become one of the fastest growth industries in the country) might change their tune as they open their new property tax assessments (These are some of the same county residents writing to the papers to decry their outrageous property taxes). And get John Ford behind the legislation too; he could use some p.r. in Memphis and from what I understand, when he is financially motivated, his legislation gets passed.

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