Sunday, May 13, 2007
Cities Take Bass Pro Shop Hook, Line and Sinker
There’s a flyer going round that objects to the Bass Pro Shop agreement in the old arena, calling it a “sweetheart deal” and questioning the tens of millions of dollars of public incentives and the wisdom of using waterfront property for it.
No, the flyer’s not circulating in Memphis. Yet.
Actually, the flyer is circulating in Buffalo, where nagging questions about the superstore continue to dog the project, despite politicians and economic development types chasing the latest “silver bullet” answer to turning around downtown Buffalo.
So far, there’s no flyers like it in Memphis, but then again, Buffalo has been trying since 2004 to get Bass Pro Shop to convert its promises about a megastore into an honest-to-goodness agreement.
The truth is that no retailer does a better job of reeling in big time public incentives than Bass Pro Shop. Its ability to hook hungry cities is legend in its industry, and it’s remarkable how many cities continue to be willing to give away tax dollars for a retail store.
Along the way, the company has become expert in the fine art of political manipulation, as it participates in the initial big announcement that raises expectations and puts politicians on the line to deliver a deal, almost any deal.
Buffalo is a case in point. With great media fanfare, politicians – including the governor of New York and the mayor of Buffalo – Bass Pro Shop announced that a vacant arena (beginning to sound familiar?) would be converted into a huge 250,000 square foot megastore, becoming the dynamic anchor for new downtown development.
After these kinds of high-profile announcements are made – with all their attendant overblown political rhetoric – it becomes all but impossible for politicians to rethink the wisdom of the deal, much less throw in the towel. As a result, the negotiating table is decidedly weighted toward the retailer, because the public sector’s priority is to save face and to do it, it needs to deliver a deal and declare victory.
You can see how it plays out in Buffalo. There, Bass Pro Shop kept the city government on the hook for years with promises that a redevelopment plan for the old arena was just around the corner. And yet, deadline after deadline passed with no progress as the company asked for more concessions. Meanwhile, the proposed project was scaled back 60 percent to 100,000 square feet.
A Fishy Museum
Finally, in the face of a 30-day ultimatum from Buffalo city government, Bass Pro Shop abandoned its grand plans for the vacant arena altogether and said it wanted a prominent location on the waterfront. In truth, it’s a highly questionable use of the prime site, but in hopes of convincing the public that they should be happy about the bait and switch, it was announced that with the new site, the public subsidy would be reduced from $60 million to $25 million.
Shortly afterwards, there was talk of a Bass Pro Museum and parking garages, so public funding may climb again.
Buffalo is not alone in the city equivalent of “new car fever.” However, it’s a reminder of the project mentality so endemic in cities today. Because of it, politicians are so determined to close a deal that they don’t ever take a step back and ask if it’s a deal even worth making. Instead of asking the hard questions, they heap more and more importance on the project, doling out a dizzying array of justifications about the retailer’s impact on downtown and economic impact arguments whose numbers are questionable at best and misleading at worse.
Back here at home, we seem to be in the first phases of the Buffalo two-step. The big box retailer has so far not managed to come close to one of the deadlines set out in its non-binding agreement (we’re not really sure why you even bother to sign one of these since they are not binding in the first place) and a letter of intent with Memphis and Shelby County Governments.
For those keeping score, Bass Pro Shop was first supposed to take possession of The Pyramid no later than June 30, 2006, and then a letter of intent left the question of a deadline wide open, simply saying that the company would take charge of the darkened Tomb of Doom 90 days after signing a binding lease and development agreement. This is a legal equivalent of saying that Bass Pro Shop could take possession of The Pyramid in a year or in a decade.
Based on the lessons in Buffalo, it looks as likely that the Grizzlies will move back into The Pyramid as for a deal with Bass Pro Shop anytime soon, much less what was originally promised - the $105 million construction of an indoor hotel, a marina with on-the-water boat testing, an inclinator ride to the apex, multiple restaurants, an aquarium and a cypress swamp.
There are even murmurings within Bass Pro Shop management that the company is just keeping its options open in Memphis as it evaluates potential locations for the superstores that it’s considered building in a few select places.
It’s hard to imagine why it would be in a hurry. After all, it’s been able to tie up Memphis’ signature building while it sorts out what it wants to do regarding the megastore.
All in all, this is enough to jar loose some recessive memories of Sidney Shlenker – big announcements, bigger plans, expanding budget, increasing demands on local government and big changes to come.
Local officials seem prepared to wait it out, and if we’ve seen the results of keeping the pressure on Bass Pro Shop so far, it’s easy to predict what a more laid-back approach will produce. It’s clear that Memphis and Shelby County Governments have no fall-back plan for the 16-year-old abandoned 20,000-seat arena.
Since no one seems to like our suggestion that we tear down a building known for its obsolescence almost from the day its doors opened, here’s another option inspired by the need for festival grounds that can be used by Memphis in May International Festival with less impact on downtown traffic and Tom Lee Park.
Here’s the proposal: leave the parking north of The Pyramid, remove the acres of asphalt used for parking lots on the south side and turn the entire 17-acre footprint into festival grounds for downtown. It invigorates the area of the downtown visitors’ center, bringing activity to the adjacent land and replacing the fields of gray asphalt with new greenspace. In addition, if there’s rain, Memphis in May has an indoor venue for its prime acts.
Finally, we think someone should get over to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and see if it would buy the rights to add the inclinator up the northern spine of The Pyramid, to develop the 10,000 square foot apex of The Pyramid and to keep the proceeds for its life-saving mission. Perhaps, all previous perceptions about the viewing platform at the top of the 320-foot building have looked the wrong way.
Rather than see the apex as an overlook for the river, perhaps, we need to consider it as an overlook for the research hospital, about the only organization in Memphis who has the deep pockets to develop the inclinator out of its petty cash. The St. Jude connection also opens up some interesting possibilities for the theme of the tourist attraction at the top of The Pyramid.
Best of all, this sends the message to Bass Pro Shop that Memphis is willing to control its own destiny. Until the retailer understands this, nothing really is going to change, especially as long as deadlines aren’t really deadlines and as long as cities talk tough for public consumption but give in in private. In this environment, the Bass Pro Shops megastores in Buffalo and Memphis will materialize only when and if the company wants them to.
Posted by Smart City Consulting at 10:47 PM