Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Future Of The Pyramid Needs To Serve Our Vision For Memphis In The Knowledge Economy


It all feels eerily familiar – the politicians’ self-congratulations, the civic hyperbole, the bureaucrats leading the rounds of applause, the army of cameras and reporters.

It’s one of Memphis’ favorite pastimes – another development plan for The Pyramid.

This time, it was Bass Pro Shop that is the answer to realizing the building’s potential. Or will it become the latest grand idea laid to rest in the Tomb of Doom along all the others?

It all began in the late 1980’s with the unforgettable Sidney Shlenker. His promises ended up as elusive as a realistic financial plan for his grand vision for The Pyramid.

In the course of a few years, he went from Memphis’ “Man of the Year” to a verb:

shlenker (SHLINK-ur), v., 1) to dupe. 2) to fool. 3) to take advantage of people with too little self-esteem to say no. (From Southern, unknown derivation, possibly river-related.)

Shlenker is now the stuff of mythology, relegated to stories of a modern Carnival huckster who hypnotized the city and county into giving him control of their sparkling, new signature building. Forgotten these days are some interesting facts: one, he owned a National Basketball Association team in Denver, he had been CEO of the Houston Astrodome, he had co-founded Pace Entertainment (the largest live entertainment company in its day) until bought by the ever-hungry SFX and most remarkably of all, he was a banker. Two, his credibility was vouched for by one of Memphis leading citizens, John Tigrett. Three, after years of searching vainly for bank financing, at the 11th hour as his contract was being voided, he found the money for his project in a French bank, but the deal fell quickly apart when the bank received an anonymous, highly critical letter about him, postmark: downtown Memphis.

No, we’re not defending Shlenker, but it’s just a little hard to place all the blame on the pickpocket when you put his hands in your pocket.

In that same time period, there was the Isaac Tigrett announcement that The Pyramid would boast Memphis’ long-awaited Hard Rock Café, but the deal fell apart when his board complained that they had not approved it and they had no interest in opening here.

Then, after a lengthy process of city and county government, there was the selection of gifted Memphis photographer Marius Penczner to add his eco-theme park, Island Earth, to the building. However, Mayor Herenton jerked his support from the project at the last minute, complaining that there were “too many Republicans in it.” Mr. Penczner went on to film and produce award-winning commercials for the Clinton/Gore campaign and was media adviser to the Gore for President campaign. With the inescapable feeling that he had been repudiated by his hometown, he moved to Nashville.

Then there was the on-again and off-again flirtation with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for the Grammy Hall of Fame, or some permutation of it. Renderings were produced, committees were formed, endless meetings were held and mayors’ blessings were bestowed. The only thing missing was the money to do it.

So, now we’ve moved to Bass Pro Shops as Memphis again searches for the elusive answer to the mystery of The Pyramid’s future. While there’s nothing definite and there are no signatures on the dotted line, it appears that it will happen.

If city and county governments’ question is, “How can we get a tenant so we can keep The Pyramid open,” they’ve come up with a winning answer. After 15 years of various schemes and plans (and the building still without even the inclinator to the apex), the special task force on Pyramid reuse seems to have a proposal that can get done.

However, if the question is, “What can be done with The Pyramid that enhances Memphis’ national image and attracts the young professions that we so desperately need,” Bass Pro Shop misses the mark. Widely.

At a time when Memphis lacks any cohesive economic plan, and these days that especially means a talent strategy to attract 25-34 year-old knowledge economy workers, it is hard to imagine that the giant fish retail theme park will be a plus.

It’s ironic that Memphis led the nation in research into this key demographic, which is determining which cities fail and which cities succeed. And yet, armed with definitive recommendations from the Memphis Talent Magnet Report, the results of the Memphis Manifesto Summit and the data of the Young and Restless studies, Memphis has never been able to leverage this knowledge into a strategy that can work.

Already, we know about Memphis’ drawbacks from major corporate recruiters in Memphis and members of the young professionals’ demographic group. In the eyes of these workers, Memphis is seen as provincial, slow-moving, dull and a big country town. They want to live and work in cities that are vibrant, have a visible creative culture and opportunities for unique, memorable experiences.

With the pressing need to correct these misperceptions and communicate a new image, city and county governments are turning over the region’s signature building to Bass Pro Shop, a highly successful company with quality leadership. But the question remains: is this the best use of The Pyramid and will it create a buzz about Memphis as a vibrant, 21st century city teeming with creativity?

When it was built, The Pyramid was supposed to symbolize our confidence in the future of Memphis. Today, its reuse should symbolize our confidence that we will be a city competitive in the new economy.

As we said, the committee that did a fine job in luring Bass Pro Shop to The Pyramid answered the question that they were given. We just wonder if it was the right question.

And, what did we learn from Memphis’ Shlenker Era? It’s simply this - it wasn’t his cleverness or his charisma or his glibness that conned us into giving him the keys to the Pyramid. Rather, it was our own neediness and feeling of unworthiness, which manifests itself in the deadly notion that we don’t deserve the best, that whatever we get is good enough and that we’re lucky to get it.

The good news is that Jim Hagale, president of Bass Pro Shop, is no Sidney Shlenker. Here's hoping we're not the same old Memphis.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't think that Memphis or Shelby County necessarily needs to create the Pyramid into something to use as a tool in recruiting 25-35 year-old professionals. I think that it's probably more important that someone who is willing to take over payments and find a use for the building (such as Bass Pro Shops) actually gets the building. Bass Pro Shops won't keep people from moving into Memphis, and it takes care of a problem while still making use of what has become an iconic building.

Sure, it would be nice if the building could help encourage people to move to Memphis. But, I don't think there are many uses for the Pyramid that would cause someone to make up their mind one way or the other. And I say this as a 25 to 35-year-old professional who has moved to Memphis within the past year.

Larry said...

That was a lengthy diatribe that said nothing.

I have to agree with Anonymous. He/she makes a very good point with very few words.

Smart City Consulting said...

First, Bass Pro Shops will not take over the payments. At best, it will pay about one-third of the payments for debt service, and we're willing to bet that it never pays anything. We repeat our advice: tear The Pyramid down. Its usefulness is over. SCC

Smart City Consulting said...

Actually, Larry, it wasn't a diatribe at all. It was a look back at history. We know a diatribe when we see them. That's why we enjoy your comments.

Smart City Consulting said...

What's your opinion if we could demonstrate that the giant bass on the side of The Pyramid damages our ability to attract these young professional workers and compete in today's economy?

Anonymous said...

As the original anonymous commenter, here are some of my responses to your responses.

First, I am not informed enough about the details to comment on the percentage that Bass Pro Shops would pay. It was my impression from various media reports that Bass Pro Shops would assume more than 1/3 of the remaining debt on the Pyramid. However, since all my information is second-hand at best, I don't know for sure what is true. I would only say that it's far too early to assume anything about what amounts of payment Bass Pro Shops will or will not end up making.

Second, my opinion may be different if there were any way to prove that a picture of a bass on the side of the Pyramid would hamper Memphis' ability to recruit young professionals. But, I just don't think you would be able to prove this. I don't think anyone is going to make a decision to come to Memphis or not based on a logo on the side of the Pyramid. I think the potential amenities of the store would at worst offset any negatives of a picture of a fish.

Last, I'm curious what you propose in the Pyramid's place. I'm not necessarily opposed to tearing it down, given the right circumstances. But, I'm not sure anything is accomplished by just tearing it down for the sake of tearing it down.

LeftWingCracker said...

And, if we may be so bold, how about we rework our educational system so that we don't have to IMPORT the creative class, but grow them and keep them HERE?

Just a thought.

I am curious to see how the fish inclinator would keep them away; for heaven's sake, take them to Cooper-Young if they are that afraid of bad taste!

mike said...

Ahahahahahahaha! I predicted this months ago, that you "creative class" types would sniff at a Bass Pro Shops in "your" downtown.

How does tearing down the Pyramid and eating the full debt load as opposed working with BPS to carry only two-thirds of the debt help Memphis? Will they find another unrelated fund to pay the costs of demolition like the Biotech Foundation did?

Don't forget that the CA did an "expose" of Schlenker *after* he blew town that uncovered all sorts of warning signs that were already there but ignored or glossed over when he was shucking and jiving the city. And don't forget that the same process started all over again with the Houston Oilers but was aborted by a city populace burned by the Pyramid experience.

And that the City's leaders (both political and financial) learned their lessons when the Grizzlies came along with their horse-and-pony show. They were ready to go and shoved the whole thing down everyone's throats (once again with the assistance of the daily paper). City councillors complained that they needed time to study the deal, but Herenton and the CA and their tiger team (falsely) put the pressure on them to hustle things along.

The result? Our music scene got screwed by the Grizzlies' "right of first refusal and non-compete," the Pyramid was effectively shut out of any possibility of recouping costs as was the Colisseum, and we got a substandard Forum that isn't what was advertised. (Go to WPTY/24's site for their expose on all the corners cut and promises unkept.) And MATA, which has no money to waste right now, managed to waste somewhere between one and two million dollars on the "multi-modal center" that has never opened!

The BPS Pyramid deal promises *at least* several hundred thousand visitors a year, if not millions. All coming downtown. The boost for the Pinch District will be astronomical, actually exceeding what was promised by the original Pyramid deal. The retail synergies will be very different than what the downtown types want, but they will be significant.

The big problem is making sure that, once again, the City Council and County Commission don't sign some "give the store away" deal like with the Pyramid and the Forum. That takes a media willing to dig up and publicise those details long in advance of any signings. SMC seems to have some knowledge, but will they publish it? Or do we have to rely on their second-hand "we've studied it for you and here's what we want you to know" statements?

I'm all for the BPS deal if some independent consultant studies the finanaces and projections for soundness, and the details of what the City gives up, and will pay, and will receive, are made public beforehand.

It's not a miracle cure-all, but I do think it will be a very good economic boost, especially blended with the Biotech Initiative. It's just a different direction than folks like SMC would like to see. Too bad. Deal with it.

Larry said...

OK, you has some history mixed in with your rant. Maybe rant would have been a better choice of words.

According the Commercial Appeal article, the deal covers the remaining debt. But even if it only covers 2/3 of it ... getting 2/3 covered is better than getting ZERO covered.

The city will retain ownership of the building and can easily write in restrictions about fish on the building in the deal.

Tear the Pyramid down? Whether you like it or not, it has become a symbol of the city. It won't be torn down. Besides, you can't get the city council to quit fiddling about the Coliseum which is in such terrible shape that it does need to be torn down.

I agree with Mike that the businesses in the Pinch will benefit.

I must also agree with Mike about your "snootiness". You just don't want BPS in "your" downtown. Outdoorsmen and women who actually hunt, fish, carry weapons, and drive something bigger than go-cart are beneath new urban/smart growth elitists. You'd be ok with in Frayser but not in Downtown! lol

sherman said...

As Larry correctly said, the Pyramid--down in its hole--has indeed become a symbol of the city. That explains why Smart City accurately said "the giant bass on the side of The Pyramid" is not necessarily what Memphis needs or should want to hang its hat on. While I'm definitely not pumped that a gigantic gun shop is opening downtown Memphis (I'll take the million a year in payments, but I'm not holding my breath that any more will come--even if that payment does--Has anyone from the city ever gotten a check from Beale St???? A sports book would be a far better, more lucrative use of that space), I think the price Memphis will pay in image will be far greater than the $1 million per year it might receive. Would St. Louis allow a titty bar to advertise on its Arch? Would N.Y. let Crazy Larry's Stereo World put a sign on the Statue of Liberty? Hanging a fish on the side of the Pyramid is the equivalent of saying, "Rednecks is Us." Snobby? Yes. True? Probably. Is Smart City wisely concerned with our image? Of course. That's what Smart City does. I agree with Smart City on this one. Bass on side of Pyramid=negative for city.

Larry said...

I don't know how many ways to say this ... restrictive clauses can be put into the lease of the Pyramid (it will still be owned by the city) that can prevent gaudy, tacky signs on the building.

If this doesn't happen, then we have no one to blame but ourselves for electing a mayor and city council who continuously bend Memphis over.

Denise Shlenker said...

COMMENT AND RANT FROM DENISE SHLENKER:
First allow me to address Larry, whom is such a coward he cannot put his last name. You disrespect your own city, you disrespect my husband, my name, my family. We came to Memphis because of an evil man named John Tigret and his wife whom both milked us for everything we were worth. My husband until this day gave more to that city than most people that live there today. He gave most of his blood, reputation, time and the time, money and reputations of his partners and friends. He, my friend, wanted to see the city a jewel for all to see. He sold his team in order to come to memphis to build this project and to buy a team that the city so desired and deserved. He had many friends who tried to talk him out of this. They hated memphis and a lot of the crooked people who run it. May i say now that he was ruined by these people. Financially, respectfully and professionally. He was a southern man with southern roots who loved Memphis. He was born in Monroe, Louisiana and lived in Houston. He was a very smart man and entepeneur. A man who made things happen when others could not. He was no "huckster" and I take great offense from all of the bad articles written about my husband Sidney. We have 3 grown children and they are very proud of their father. He was a master promoter and he changed the world in many ways. You dont know anything about Sidney Shlenker and I promise you that I will get the word out from now on. He meant more to Memphis than any of the people who say they give a shit and Memphis meant the same to him. At the 11th hour he did what he said he would do. Can any of you say you could raise those millions of dollars? Can any of you? Then when he finally delivers some brainless, stupid, disgusting person of whom I will not name names and lives in Downtown Memphis writes a letter to the bank causing the bank to withdraw their loan. We all know who that man is. It disgusts me because not only did it bankrupt my husband but it robbed the city of its morality and respect of which it so desperately needed. Elvis is not the only "pony show" in that town and he wanted great things for this city. He worked with Gore and everyone else for baseball, basketball, television and pay per view. Memphis owes a lot to Sidney Shlenker. Again, I will say he was not a perfect man, I am his wife and I know. People should not be judged by their failures because if so no one would have the courage to do anything in fear of failing. Anyone who wants to comment can bring concerns to me at my email: DeniseShlenker@hotmail.com

Thank you.