Memphis’ Pyramid Dream 

BRANDON DILL
  • Brandon Dill

The Great American Pyramid opened on the banks of the Wolf River Harbor in 1991, a vision brought to life by the late great entrepreneur John Tigrett, who hired a hustler named Sidney Shlenker to run the place.

Hopes were high. The Pyramid, the sixth-largest such structure in the world, would become a major American tourist destination. There was to be a short-wave radio station inside, broadcasting Memphis music to the world. There was going to be an inclinator on the exterior that would take visitors to an observation deck, a Hard Rock Cafe, a music museum, a nearby theme park. It was going to transform downtown Memphis.

But things went south quickly, as Tigrett and Shlenker quarreled about plans, and Shlenker ran into financial difficulties. On opening night, the whole lower level flooded. The would-be tourist attraction then became an 18,000-seat sports and entertainment arena — home to the Memphis Tigers basketball team and host to concerts by REM, Prince, Fleetwood Mac, and many others. But the sound was awful and concert seating was difficult.

Oh, there were some highlights and good times — a Mike Tyson vs. Lennox Lewis prize fight; several NCAA tournament rounds; COGIC conventions — but for the most part, the Pyramid was a big, shiny, faux-Egyptian duck out of water.

The death knell came when the Memphis Grizzlies came to town and declared the Pyramid inadequate for NBA basketball. The FedExForum was built in 2004 and the Pyramid soon became a "big empty" that dominated the city's skyline. For years, when visitors came to town and asked what was in "that big pyramid," Memphians would have to answer, "nothing." Awkward.

Then came the 10-year barn-dance with Bass Pro Shops, the Springfield, Missouri-based outdoor mega-retailer. After beginning informal talks in 2005, the city and the company reached a formal agreement on a 55-year lease in 2010. There was much wailing and snark from certain sectors of the populace, much of it based on the premise that the city shouldn't turn its most iconic structure into a "bait shop."

Now, after several false starts and delays, the big pointy bait shop is about to open. And after having toured the place, I predict it will be an epic game-changer for the city. The Bass Pro Pyramid is as much theme park as it is retail outlet, with a massive man-made swamp on the ground level, complete with towering cypress trees, native fish species, and alligators. In the center of it all, the world's tallest free-standing elevator rises to the Pyramid's peak, where visitors can drink and dine from a deck that's higher than the Statue of Liberty, with a view unmatched in the city.

After 24 years of fits and starts, the city's downtown core will essentially have one of the biggest retail facilities in the area, one that's predicted to attract a million visitors a year. Call it a bait shop if you like, but if it brings in the tourism and jobs that are projected, Memphis has landed a lunker.

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