The Bass Pro Whopper

Landing the big one will come at a steep price.



Several years ago, the Temptations sang a love song that included the line, "Like the size of the fish the man says broke his reel, it's growing."

In classic fish-story fashion, the cost of putting Bass Pro Shops in The Pyramid is growing to a whopping $110 million. Or more.

That's the amount of public financing sought in an application the hunting and fishing retailer filed in November with the Center City Revenue Finance Corporation.

Basically, the city will gut and fix up The Pyramid and Bass Pro will stock it with merchandise and attractions.

That's nearly twice the original cost of the iconic building when it was built 20 years ago for a figure ranging from $56 million to $65 million depending on which add-ons you count. It is also $47 million more than the $63 million the Memphis City Council approved in August "to redevelop the Pyramid and Pinch District."

Privately held Bass Pro, based in Missouri, has taken five years to get to this point. It competes with Cabela's, L.L. Bean, Gander Mountain, and locally owned hunting and fishing retailers such as Tommy Bronson Sporting Goods. There is a Bass Pro Shops already near Sycamore View and Interstate 40.

Critics have called the Pyramid proposal a glorified bait shop, a retailer whose cachet is fading in the crowded hunting and fishing field, and a company that has strung along several other attention-starved cities only to disappoint them. Even some former proponents of the deal now privately admit that Memphis would have been better off demolishing The Pyramid.

The cost of retrofitting The Pyramid — a geometrical variation of putting the proverbial square peg into a round hole — has gone from $30 million to $50 million to $63 million to $110 million, with a caveat that the price could rise to $121.6 million if the financing isn't completed before the end of December.

Would the public have swallowed this deal if the $110 million figure had been thrown out for consumption a couple of years ago or at any time that the City Council gave its approval? Of course not.

But this is another classic example of how things get done in downtown Memphis.

The Pyramid was pitched as a $39 million project. Beale Street Landing, which will cost at least $35 million, was pitched as a $27.4 million project. The convention center makeover price tag soared from $70 million to nearly $100 million.

Taxpayers, of course, get the bills, which are soft-sold as federal stimulus funds, state matching funds, tourism development zone taxes, or anything but property taxes. They enrich the financiers, architects and engineers, developers, and construction firms who get the big contracts.

In addition to gutting The Pyramid, funds would also be used to purchase 34 properties in the Pinch District east of The Pyramid and the Lone Star cement company property to the south. The offer is $7 million for the Pinch properties and $10 million for Lone Star and its cluster of towers with the "Memphis" sign on top next to the Interstate 40 ramp.

Morgan Keegan is the lead bond underwriter. O.T. Marshall Architects is the architecture and engineering firm. Poag & McEwen is the proposed retail developer of The Pinch.

Robert Lipscomb, head of the Division of Housing and Community Development and a holdover from the Willie Herenton administration, is the project mastermind.

The application says the bonds "will be secured by tourism zone revenue which is projected to exceed $24 million annually." A total of $42 million of the financing is from Recovery Zone Economic development bonds.

Bass Pro is moving along concurrently with two other major downtown projects: Beale Street Landing, with a shortfall of $6.7 million, and the relocation of Pinnacle Airlines to One Commerce Square for a multimillion-dollar package of incentives including tax abatements.

Downtown is getting a facelift, but it's coming at a steep price.

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