Entrepreneur Ericson Advances Pyramid Plan in Sit-Down with Council and Commission Members 

From beginning to end, it lasted only three hours, but Wednesday's joint session of the city council and county commission had the feel of a marathon, and, by the end of it entrepreneur Greg Ericson had advanced his proposal for a theme park in The Pyramid a considerable distance indeed.

If nothing else, he had extracted a concession from Robert Lipscomb, the city's point man on Pyramid use, that "we've got two good deals," and there was movement in Ericson's direction on both the commission and the council. Speaking for himself, councilman Bill Boyd said afterward he was tilting away from a deal with the previously favored Bass Pro Shop and toward the Ericson proposal. "And I would guess others on the council might feel that way," Boyd said.

Though his son, councilman Shea Flinn, seemed to be arguing for wait-and-see on Ericson's finances, commissioner George Flinn was more optimistic. Having heard an offer from the entrepreneur to begin $8 million payments on a monthly basis and to supply appropriate letters of credit from financial sources, the senior Flinn said flatly, "If you're financially viable, it's a slam dunk."

Seconds later, councilman Harold Collins agreed. Likening Ericson to a suitor come "courting," Collins had this to say concerning the requested financial assurances: "Where's the ring? And then we'll marry."

All of that was a dramatic turnaround for the man who had been seeking just such an audience and just such a resolution as those he got Monday. And, for their part, both the council and the commission had been wondering, as the younger Flinn put it Wednesday, "Where's the money?"

After making a Power-Point presentation and answering questions from members of both legislative bodies, Ericson had been persuasive enough about both his financial wherewithal and the viability of his Pyramid Resorts proposal to win the aforesaid acknowledgment of parity from Lipscomb, however grudging. And, though no vote was
taken on Wednesday, it seemed clear that those council and commission members who were present would henceforth hold both Ericson's proposal and that from Bass Pro Shop to the same standard.

Both are now on the same starting line, or, as Commissioner Mike Ritz put, capable of being compared to each other "apple to apple," allowing the two legislative bodies to "choose the project we like best" so long as they could show equivalent financials.
And, if that outcome favored Pyramid Resorts, it was because Ericson and his associate
Nikki Anthony seemed to convince their questioners that they might indeed show them the money.

"There Are No Rules."

The meeting had gotten underway in the 4th-floor meeting room in the county office building with commissioner James Harvey presiding and with commissioner Sidney Chism first expressing concerns about an "agenda" favoring Ericson's proposal, and then seeking to postpone the meeting. {Chism has been widely considered an exponent of the Bass Pro proposal, though he insists he is neutral -- and skeptical of both sides.}

Chism asked if he could invoke the commission's Rule 33, which permits any member of the commission to postpone consideration of an item for two weeks.

"There are no rules," responded county commission parliamentarian Brian Kuhn, who noted it was a joint council-commission meeting and one, moreover, that was expected to propose no resolutions for immediate action.

The answer did double duty - first, as a response to Chism, and, secondly, as a description of the general muddle that now adheres to the status of The Pyramid, Memphis' most famous unemployed landmark.

Before the meeting, most members of either the commission or the council would say, when polled privately, that they favored neither Ericson's theme park, the financing of which had been unclear, nor Bass Pro, which presumably has enough financial endowment but is widely suspected, via a series of letters-of-intent, followed by an ambiguous "development agreement," of stringing the city and county along

The next question that needed answering was asked by councilman Shea Flinn, who wanted to know if Ericson intended to sketch out plans for Mud Island or restrict himself to a proposal for the currently unused Pyramid property. "Mud Island is off the table," Ericson said firmly, thereby reversing a previous position that limiting his project's design would be a "deal killer."

Ericson went on to narrate his Power-Point presentation, involving a plan to use "all 40 million cubic feet" of The Pyramid's interior and to install features like waterfalls, thrill sides, and an observation deck while constructing an adjacent shopping plaza and hotel. Ericson cited the financial wherewithal of several partner enterprises - Prosperity International, Essex Investments, and BRC Imagination Arts.

"The most important thing is, we're ready to start right now," Ericson said.

Harvey, asked about reports of declining attendance at theme parks nationally. Ericson cited a report showing the contrary - that attendance at theme parks had picked up during the previous two years and several of them were contemplating expansion.

Chism then weighed in. "With the economy the way it is now," he said, "there is no way we can project with any certainty." Ericson said he agreed, but argued that local residents would respond to a depressed economy by cutting back on travel and exploring the diversions (like, presumably, Pyramid Resorts) that were close at hand.

At that point, Harvey came to the rescue. If Ericson made the project "a world-class environment" and managed to "relieve the county of debt, this commission doesn't care if you make the money or not."

Ericson demonstrated his flexibility by presenting an argument opposite to (or perhaps complementary of) his previous one. Only 5 percent of intended clientele reside within the Memphis market, he said, "We intend to advertise as far as Chicago." In fact, everywhere within a 500-mile radius.

Ericson proved adept at taking jabs at his rival. Asked about one obscure-sounding proviso in his plan, he responded, "We actually took that language directly from the Bass Pro document." At another point, he stressed a distinction between the various Bass approaches and the working document he came in with. "This is not a letter of intent," he said, "This is an agreement."

And, lest anyone missed the point of that, he presented a timeline starting with the point, some 80 months ago, that local government signed its compact with the NBA Grizzlies and continuing through several enumerated "letters of intent"from Bass Pro, followed by that company's "missed deadlines."

One other point of distinction: Since Ericson's group would buy the building, not rent it a la Bass Pro, there would be the added difference of property tax revenues for the city and county.

More Q and A from the two local legislative bodies followed, with Harvey having taken his leave and Wyatt Bunker presiding in his absence.

Would Ericson object to a proviso excluding casino use? "No, they're illegal in the state of Tennessee," the entrepreneur answered.

What would his development period be? "Approximately three years."

"Two Good Deals"

After further back-and-forth, commissioner Steve Mulroy, who has been an Ericson backer all along, argued that the city and county: should give the Pyramid Resorts project a go-ahead. He added, "I don't think Bass Pro are into us. Even now, we're in limboland while they're doing 'feasibility studies.' Every month hundreds of thousands in debt service. Let's get on with it."

That led in turn to a general agreement that both Pyramid Resorts and Bass Pro would be given the opportunity to put their money down, demonstrate their lines of credit and other signs of viability, and get their projects started. It was that last concept and apparent concern about loopholes in Bass Pro's "development agreement" that led to the formal recognition of parity - one that Lipscomb, who was spotted in the audience and was asked to speak, assented to.

"We've got two good deals," said the city official, who said he had favored the Bass Pro Shop proposal because he had confidence in the chain's corporate underpinning. As for Ericson's Pyramid Resorts, "I haven't been able to verify the financials. I'm not trying to disprove it. I'm trying to, what, prove it."

Lipscomb, citing Ericson's need to demonstrate an ability to handle unanticipated developmental expenses and operating costs, made it clear he hadn't backed off his regard for Bass Pro Shop. But he had conceded an essential equality of treatment that Ericson and his associates can count on henceforth.

And, as commissioner Joyce Avery noted, "I haven't yet been able to meet an official of Bass Pro Shop." The same could not be said for Greg Ericson. He was very much there on Wednesday and insisted he would be on hand for any future requests for information. "Just tell us X and we'll get you X," he said at one point.

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