Still Fishing Around

The Pyramid has searched for the right tenant ever since it opened. Will we ever land Bass Pro Shops?

The Pyramid is closing in on the 20th anniversary of the promise that it would be home to a 365-day-a-year tourist attraction and a state-of-the-art arena. In the end, it became neither, and shut down and dark today, it's nothing so much as a testament to government indecisiveness.

The chronology of the Sidney Shlenker-John Tigrett epic remains deeply etched into the city's psyche, so it bears no repeating here, except to say that if history does in fact repeat itself, that's especially true at The Pyramid, where time after time government reliably fails to close a deal for private development of the building.

It's proof positive to government critics that you should never send a public official to do a businessperson's job.

To illustrate that point, not long ago, the Herenton administration signed three non-binding letters of intent with Bass Pro Shops to build a megastore in The Pyramid. So far, it appears that Bass Pro Shops — which regularly wrings government incentives from $25-$40 million for its stores — is more focused on "non-binding" than "intent."

It has repeatedly missed its target dates for action, and only several weeks ago did someone from the company make the first extensive inspection of the building. The five-hour visit apparently began "due diligence" for Bass Pro Shops — almost three years after it first expressed interest.

In Buffalo, New York, the mayor announced six years ago that the retailer would convert a closed auditorium into a megastore, but three years after signing a letter of intent, Bass Pro Shops abandoned its original project.

That sounds familiar. In December 2005, city government's dealmaker Robert Lipscomb said that the Herenton administration agreed to most of Bass Pro's terms, and the company would take charge of The Pyramid in six months. It never happened, but city government signed a second letter of intent, this one without any deadline.

All in all, it's enough to conjure up memories of the Shlenker era's big announcements, bigger plans, and sliding deadlines, and the constant machinations of city and county governments to try to make something happen.

Ironically, right across Front Street from The Pyramid is the office of the Ericson Group, which has been trying to get an equal shot at the building for 14 years, a situation made even more curious by the fact that city and county governments' own Pyramid reuse committee endorsed the Ericson project — a combination indoor/outdoor theme park/big-box retail/restaurants — as the best use of the building.

Ignoring that recommendation, Memphis city government went in a completely different direction — chasing Bass Pro Shops instead. For Greg Ericson, it's déjà vu all over again.

Back in 1993 former Memphian Marius Penczner — noted filmmaker, cinematographer, and political media consultant — was given the go-ahead to develop an ecologically themed attraction in The Pyramid. Ericson made a proposal similar to the one he's advancing today.

Eventually, he and Penczner would team up, and after enduring a process with more political intrigue than Middle East negotiations, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, at the last possible moment, canceled a press conference that would have announced that Penczner and Ericson would build a digital theme park in The Pyramid. The cause for Herenton's sudden reversal has never been explained, but it serves as a cautionary tale for Ericson as he pleads for the same opportunity given to Bass Pro Shops by city government — a non-binding letter of intent.

With that document, he says he can immediately produce the financing needed to move ahead with his $150 million Pyramid Adventure project, with more than three dozen rides inside and outside, a big-box retailer like Bass Pro Shops or Cabela's, and an indoor glass elevator to the top. He says his financing includes money to pay the remaining $12 million in public debt for The Pyramid. Meanwhile, Bass Pro is asking for government incentives of at least $30 million and wants local government to continue paying off the building's bonds.

This time around, Ericson met with Herenton, who directed his staff to enter into a letter of intent with Ericson. It never came. When Ericson wrote one himself and sent it to the mayor's office, it was never signed, leaving him once again to wonder exactly what happened.

About the same time that Bass Pro Shops representatives toured The Pyramid, politicians in New York announced yet another "done deal" for Bass Pro on the Buffalo waterfront. It was six years after the project was first announced. Details remain to be ironed out. 

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