The idea of turning The Pyramid into a casino a few years from now may be a lot of things, but nuts is not one of them.
As an eyewitness to one of Charlie McVean's hackney pony races with robot jockeys at the Mid-South Fairgrounds in 1987, the only recorded vote of the Tennessee Racing Commission in 1988, the opening of Splash Casino in Tunica in 1992, the opening of Harrah's Casino in Robinsonville in 1994, and the 10th anniversary of Tunica as a gambling center in 2002, I would put the Pyramid-as-casino proposal, at worst, halfway across on the nuttiness meter.
Major downtowns can exist with one or more casinos. Downtown Detroit has three. Downtown St. Louis has one. Downtown New Orleans has one. And Maryland, at the urging of a Republican governor, is considering putting slot machines at racetracks.
Is a Pyramid casino controversial? Of course. Politically difficult? Certainly. Would a Memphis casino proposal be certain to draw ridicule and major opposition? Absolutely.
Well, getting the NBA to Memphis was controversial. AutoZone Park was difficult. Building the FedExForum was a stretch. Holding the Lennox Lewis vs. Mike Tyson fight in Memphis was widely ridiculed and opposed. And all those things happened because the right people wanted them to happen. A casino in The Pyramid could happen too, if the right people set their minds to it.
For starters, the question is not moot. Gambling is not banned by the Tennessee Constitution, as many people apparently believe it is.
"Except for lotteries, there is nothing in the state constitution prohibiting gambling, and the regulation of all types of gambling, other than lotteries, is a matter for determination by the General Assembly," said the Tennessee attorney general's office in 2001.
What is moot is the moral argument against casino gambling. Tunica took care of that. Memphians lose at least a few hundred million dollars a year gambling. Mississippi and Tunica County get all the tax benefits and development and don't contribute one penny to Memphis or Shelby County in return.
So what do you suppose will happen to The Pyramid after the Grizzlies move? Let's suppose four scenarios:
1) The U of M men's basketball team stays in The Pyramid, and the building gets sloppy seconds on concerts and other events after the Grizzlies exercise right of first refusal.
2) U of M follows the Grizzlies to FedExForum, and The Pyramid becomes a vast shopping mall.
3) The Pyramid is torn down, leaving a vast parking lot and a not particularly attractive vacant lot.
4) The Pyramid becomes a casino with a hotel similar to its golden lookalike, Luxor in Las Vegas, with an attraction at the top and an inclinator.
In the first two scenarios, the building's debt service and operating subsidy remain the responsibility of the public sector. In scenario two, the public bears the cost of what would surely be a healthy subsidy to attract a private developer. In scenario three, the cost of demolition and public ridicule are borne by the public sector.
In scenario four, all development costs of the casino and hotel plus debt service are borne by the private sector. Unless, that is, you don't believe that a single casino company would have any interest in the rights to a downtown casino and hotel in Memphis.
There are Memphians -- former Holiday Inns and Promus CEO Mike Rose is one who comes to mind -- who have forgotten more than most people will ever know about the casino and hotel business. Or a Memphis casino could steal a little talent from Tunica.
Inventing an Indian tribe to own the casino on "tribal lands" is seen as a way to get gambling through the back door but has its problems. No tax money goes to the state.
As for the Tennessee General Assembly, H.L. Mencken once said, "The typical lawmaker of today is a man wholly devoid of principle -- a mere counter in a grotesque and knavish game. If the right pressure could be applied to him he would be cheerfully in favor of polygamy, astrology, or cannibalism."
John Branston is director of special projects for Contemporary Media, Inc., the Flyer's parent organization.