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.

Flyer Fishing

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.

Unlikely Plans

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.

No Hurry

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.

Festival Grounds

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.

Kids Count

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.


sherman said...

What is the upside for Mayor Lipscomb to keep playing footsy with these jokers? He should stick to tearing down decrepit housing projects as he has been a disaster in the capacity as head of the Pyramid committee. Give 'em 30 days to sign a deal or hit the road, jack.

In addition to being a p.r. nightmare turning the city's iconic symbolic building into a big bait shop, after 2 years Memphis has no contract, no agreement, no nothing. Meanwhile, while taxpayers continue to pay the bills and watch the building flounder, others have been willing to get involved and have been treated like stepchildren. This is truly some of the worst negotiating I have ever witnessed. Patience is not always a virtue. Fish or cut bait, Lipscomb!

Chris said...

As anyone who has ever driven downtown on North Parkway in the morning can tell you, the Pyramid is never in the shade. Instead of reflecting all of that light all over the city, let's capture it. Cover the south, east and west faces of the Pyramid in solar panels (manufactured by Sharp right here in Memphis) and turn it into a power station. It's right next to an electrical substation already, and it will produce the most electricity on hot, sunny summer days when the demand and prices are at their peak. That way, the Pyramid will be a source of income rather than a drain on the public coffers, and the greenhouse-gas-free electricity it creates will just get more valuable as time goes on.

bob said...

To hell with BPS. If Memphis city officials can't think of a more imaginative public use for this icon, then to hell with them, too.

Frankly, I'd be okay with a city-run casino. Not imaginative, but sure would be a money maker.

Anonymous said...

Please, everyone stop suggesting casinos for downtown Memphis. Casino gambling will never be legal in blue-hair Bible thumping Tennessee, so it's useless wishful thinking.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, if for different reasons. On the list of things the pyramid could become, a casino is about the most drab and awful thing you could put there. I come from one of the cities in Mississippi who bought into the Casino line a little over a decade ago. Casinos, as it turns out, are generally good at generating revenue for themselves and not much else.

A casino is just something else for people to drive to, park at, and then drive away from when they're done. Hell, at least the festival ground idea has the potential to draw people back out into the neighborhood (which, btw, a well designed retail environment could do if the designers actually give a damn).

And since I'm here, can we please collectively stop with the "bait shop" business? It reeks of urban snobbery. (I'm not meaning to pick on you Sherman... I've heard this phrase a lot recently) I agree that it's seriously past time for the city government to grow a pair and tell Bass Pro make up it's damned mind or we're moving on, but at least the Bass Pro has the potential to attract people into downtown who might otherwise make every excuse in the world to not make the trip (and maybe, just maybe, they'd bring their money with them). I'm sure the people in the Pinch would be happy for the new potential client base.

Besides, why does it strike everyone as such a strange idea to put a boat shop right on the river?

Smart City Consulting said...

To us, it's not about a boat shop on the river. It's about finding the highest and best use for the signature building on the waterfront. It's hard for us to think that the answer is a retail use that's only a bigger, gaudier version of those found in other places. Also, it's hard for us to think that the giant jumping bass destined for the side of The Pyramid is our best welcome to Memphis sign.

mike said...

Sorry, SMC, but "highest and best use" is code for exactly the snobbery that Anon is calling you on. A festival ground? Is that the "highest and best use" of valuable downtown real estate? Pffft!

You're never going to get the urban density you need for all your grand plans downtown by leaving enormous tracts of land at grade level.

If you're going to propose taking the vast parking lots surrounding the Pyramid and using them for something else (which I agree is an idea worthy of serious exploration) then let's be bold.

How many people living downtown have been crying out for a "big box" store to cater to them? Wal-Mart, Sam's, Target, whatever. Here's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make it happen! I am being serious here.

It would be right next to the North Terminal and the Trolley, giving much-needed traffic boosts to those sagging public transports. It bring a whole lot of folks into the area, boosting the restaurant trade and giving impetus to the secondary types of stores that follow the big boxes. It would also add to the desire to stay downtown beyond 5PM that doesn't much exist right now.

How many major American metropoli have this kind of opportunity? How many have big box stores in the hearts of the downtowns?

You need only look at the Home Depot at Poplar and Avalon to see the possibilities. It's always busy. And Target has been sniffing around the same area for years now. They've demonstrated real, motivated interest. Why not capture it?

That's highest, best use.

Second, your article is missing some very important information. It's an advocacy piece, so I understand, but the very obvious question you imply but do not address is this: How many stores has Bass Pro Shops actually followed through on and built? I've seen the CA talk about the successes of other stores in neighboring cities, so which ones? Obviously, they are building stores and they are successful, so where's the information on that?

You've picked the single city with the "worst case scenario" that mirrors Memphis, but aren't there counter-examples where BPS has followed through? What's the story there?

You've conveniently painted a picture that supports everything you argue. Good rhetoric; bad logic.

I still maintain that y'all are just horrified by the idea of lower-class working people who like the outdoors from a hunting and fishing perspective -- rather than a biking and riding perspective -- tramping through your lovely downtown fantasyland, ruining the uplifting museums and kicky boutiques, bringing in Applebees and Olive Gardens rather than some divine Afro-Asian fusion tapas bistro.

Some of us want to bring people downtown. Others just seem to want certain people downtown.


Ooh! Last point. You are right that BPS needs a fire lit under them to get them moving. Realising suddenly that they are now competing with the Wal-Marts and Targets of America for downtown space might do it.

sherman said...

There's a Target coming to mid-town. There's a Wal-mart across the river in west memphis.

As far as casinos being awful, a well-run casino would solve many of Memphis' problems including the continued drain of money that goes across the river and more likely into Tunica. At the very least, a small percentage of that tax revenue would remain in Memphis. At best, it would help Memphis be a 2nd tier destination city for tourism, fill more hotel rooms, and increase activity in the dormant area around the Pyramid.

Anyone who can not see the negative p.r. of putting a bass fishing outlet in the city's iconic symbolic building should merely ask any visitor to town what they think of the idea. 99% would think it is a joke to have a fishing shop in your iconic locale. If that is urban snobbery, color me guilty as charged. Every day I drive visitors from out of town by the Pyramid. They ask me what is in it. I tell them a Bass Fishing Outlet might be coming. They shake their head and laugh in bewilderment.

If you think outside of the local hunter/fisher world, a fishing store that--at best financially--covers the debt service on the Pyramid is a negative for the city from a promotional point of view. If it is such a great idea, then why hasn't Bass moved in yet? It's not happening, people, and Lipscomb seems to think it is worth holding our breath for. Not only is it not happening, it is not an idea worth giving them an exclusive, non-negotiating period since they have made no committment at all on the building.

I agree that other tenants should be negotiated and I am for a casino. This is the best money-maker for the city as witnessed by the success of Tunica, which Memphis has made the 3rd largest casino market in the country. A well-run casino in downtown Memphis would conservatively do $1 million a day. Taxed at the rates that Miss. casinos are taxed would go a long way to stemming the seemingly upward spiral of property taxes. If you don't like the idea of the casino being downtown, as a taxpayer you would most likely enjoy the reduced property taxes. Certainly far more lucrative than a bait shop....

Smart City Consulting said...


As we've written before, Bass Pro Shop has made a career out of wringing public money and public incentives out of cities too needy to understand that there are higher and better uses of public money and public land.

It's absurd to suggest that using the phrase, higher and better uses, is tantamount to snobbery. If we would just consider such basic criteria when it came to turning over thousands of acres of green land to development, when it came to building The Pyramid in the first place, and now it's the same criteria that ought to be used for the Fairgrounds.

Highest and best use could be anything from a farmer's market to a park to an apartment complex. It's not about snobbery. It's about having enough civic pride that you actually plan for your future rather than having such deep feelings of unworthineses that you think you have to accept any offer that comes through the door.

Sorry, Mike, but you're missing in action on this one. If you wrote out the top 50 best uses of The Pyramid, big box retail shouldn't come up even once, or maybe at #51, right behind tear it down.

As for the suggestion that we're picking the worst example, you find another example. This isn't about a regular Bass Pro Shop (although the chain wrings public incentives out of cities even for its regular retail outlets). It's about its long-promised concept, an idea thrown out from time to time as a possible business strategy but hasn't been built yet.

Finally, all urban design is about balance. We're not anti-green (although we've been accused of that too). We think you could create 15 acres of greenspace there and add some more acreage at other places, and put some of the bluff to better uses too as we've mentioned before.

As for the wonders of a big box retailer on the most prominent location downtown, why don't we just turn the building over to Wal-Mart, admit that we have no vision or ambition, turn out the lights and all go to bed. We've just become East West Memphis.

There's no greater indicator of the lethargy in our thinking than to settle for such a pedestrian use of a signature building than this one.

We won't reply to the comment about having the right kind of people downtown since we know by the speciousness of that comment that you're just being ironic.

Thanks for the response.

Smart City Consulting said...

Mike: By the way, a bunch of the bikers and hikers we know are also hunters and fishers, so be assured that the stereotypes don't work. In fact, how are you sure we're not some of them?

We forgot one point: the CA is talking about the success of the regular Bass Pro Shop stores. The one envisioned for The Pyramid is about three times larger than the biggest of those.

By the way, we were buying something in a Bass Pro Shop about a month ago. How about you?

Smart City Consulting said...

From an August post, here's what we find most reprehensible about big box retailers like Bass Pro Shop:

In a moment of unusual candor, an official of Cabela’s, #2 to Bass Pro Shop’s #1, said that the company is most adept at wringing concession out of smaller cities anxious for answers to reignite their economies. One of these tactics may be playing out here, because once the announcement is made, the greatest pressure to cut a deal is on the public sector, not on the retailer, because elected officials don’t want to look like they failed, particularly when the symbol of that failure is 320 feet tall on the riverfront.

If there has ever been a poster child for corporate welfare, it should be the public incentives given in so many places to retailers and retail developments. And once more, it’s another supposed economic development strategy that does nothing to create the high-skill, high value-added jobs that every city is competing for.

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough companies like Gander Mountain, #3 fishing and hunting retailer. It has taken a stand opposing taxpayer subsidies, saying they are “anti-competitive and fundamentally inappropriate.” It’s pretty hard to argue with that logic, and in support of it, Gander Mountain has launched a national campaign against government subsidies for retail companies.

Meanwhile, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s continue to wring public subsidies out of cities on the basis that they are not retail stores, but “destinations.” Whether they are a retail novelty that will fade in the coming years remains to be seen. But whether they are or not, it’s next to impossible to imagine a situation where its true economic impact in Memphis and elsewhere will ever be known.

In the meantime, though, we think we’ll be buying our Guide Series TEC Hunter Extreme bow, with its 31 3/8" axle to axle length, 302 fps IBO speed, 7 3/4" brace height, 3.7 lbs. mass weight, 26"-30" draw lengths, from Gander Mountain.

mike said...

First, SCM, let me clear up a misunderstanding. I'm not talking about turning the Pyramid itself over to a big box retailer like Wal-Mart or Target, but some of the concrete parking acreage surrounding it. It's what you mentioned in a comment above mine.

The North Pinch area suffered a real hit when the Pyramid was strangled in its bed. Putting any kind of magnet retailer in that area draws in people who will patronise the Pinch businesses and draw in new businesses.

My point was about outside the box, radical thinking that takes advantage of a unique never to be repeated opportunity. (Well, this is Memphis so it's likely we'll end up repeating it. Sigh.)

It's good to see we agree that something needs to happen and that we only disagree on the what. It's also funny that I support keeping the Promenade as a park space while y'all (IIRC) support the RDC plan to commercialise and privatise it; and I support making the area surrounding the Pyramid more commercial but y'all support making it more "festival."

Sherman, I hope you know that I respect you as a businessman and a music-civic activist. I think we agree on a lot of things about Memphis, too. But I'd submit that most of the tourists you bring in and talk with aren't of the hunter-fisher-outdoorsman type. Don't disparage the very large number of Memphians and Mid-Southerners who love the outdoors, simply because they aren't you. Cities are made up of many, diverse and different groups; it's the learning to live together that makes a city great.

BTW, SCM, if you pulled that bow description straight from memory and didn't copy'n'paste it from the Gander catalog, then I'll buy you lunch. C'mon, be honest! ;-)

Anonymous said...


I'll say again: a casino is a dead issue for Memphis. The state of Tennessee will never allow us to have one, both because they don't like Memphis to begin with and because they can't stand the thought that someone 400 miles away might be gambling.
It's a great idea in theory and I would be in favor of it, but in the real Bible-thumping world we live in, it ain't gonna happen.

mike said...

The casinos themselves won't allow casino gambling in Memphis! They've all got huge investments already and more planned. Dividing casinos between Tunica and Memphis would be expensive and problematic. Won't happen.

jhsfbb said...

Ok, I'm a gambler. At this point I say the odds of a casino in the pyramid are just a little worse than a fishing store happening.

And lest anyone thinks what goes on in the Pyramid is about my wants, it is obviously not. The negative p.r. for Memphis is indisputable (outside of the already well-taken care of outdoors’ shoppers, who already have plenty of options in the area) if the fishing shop ever does happen in the symbolic building of the city. (Anyone want to drive across the river with me so we can bet on whether or not this bait shoppe happens?) Aren't we talking about the perception and direction of the city on this blog?

There are plenty of other locations in town to put a bait shop and gun store (lord knows, we don't have enough guns in this town already--let's put a gun store in the city's iconic building!). And there are already plenty of both. I don't think anyone in the area has a difficult time finding a fishing pole or bait or ammo if they need these products. Why would you take your signature building and open up a fishing shop there unless you wanted to send the message out that hunting & fishing is the #1 promotional priority of the city? Surely it isn't for the deal that has been proffered because it is not a lucrative one for the city, even in a best case scenario.

Again, we're not talking about reality since this bait shop ain't happening so why not talk about a casino that ain't happening?

(As long as we are thinking out loud, imagine what would happen if we got rid of all the crooks representing this side of the state and actually had real representatives for the area. This is obviously a completely diff. discussion, but it's been so long since this area had state representation that no one even knows what it means any more! If the so-called black coalition that has been pocketing the profits for themselves instead of representing their people--as well as the Mayor and other politicos/power brokers--agreed to put their districts first and make casino gambling a priority, it could happen. Of course it would be "hard work" and the movement would have to fight the industry in Tunica who would obviously not want their most lucrative market to have other better options. That's why they call it hard work. Again, that's another discussion).

Anyway, y'all can hold your breath on this fishing exposition. Holler at me when it happens. I'm taking bets in West Memphis and Tunica that it won't happen.

Whoever announced this deal without a signed agreement and cash on the barrel is probably not qualified to be in that position.

sherman said...

P.S. that's me above! Jhsfbb is my anonymous blogger name...

Smart City Consulting said...


If history is any indicator, The Pyramid could just as likely be a negative force on The Pinch. As soon as the building opened, buildings were leveled and parking lots appeared like mushrooms. These days, these big box retailers do everything possible to make sure that customers drive to the store, never leave the store, and get in their cars and leave the store. We think that on balance the festival grounds would bring more vibrancy and more life to the Pinch. Because St. Jude's has been quietly buying up a lot of the area in order to control its own neighborhood, we still think that someone should approach the hospital about buying the archaic building.

We don't find any conflict in your position about the promenade and The Pyramid, nor in ours. They're just varying views of the future.

As for the bow, as we mentioned, it was copied from an earlier post on the idiocy of cities paying incentives for these retailers; however, at the time, it was the result of a search on the Gander Mountain for a gift for a family member. (If this makes any real difference...)

Smart City Consulting said...

What about Chris' idea for The Pyramid to become the center of a new solar power project? Now that's thinking outside of the box.

And Sherman, we think you are completely right in predicting that the Bass Pro Shop will in the end be a source of negative p.r. for Memphis.

Anonymous said...

Late comments-How many of you have actually ever been inside a Bass Pro store? Particularly, the main one in Springfield MO? Bass Pro is to "bait shop" as 747 is to Piper Cub. My business has taken me to Springfield, St Louis, Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta, Charlotte, Baltimore, and Nashville locations. They all do quite well and no store they've ever opened has closed.

As for anecdotal stories of "all the people I bring into town?" dissing the idea, exactly how many people would that be? I have had that same conversation with probably 15 people who seemed to think it would be a good idea.

Upsides-north tourist stop on the trolley ride, actual destination stop for the tourists we already have, open 364 days a year, self promoting, self sustaining, rent paying tenant. Proven commodity with national name recognition as opposed to other things that haven't been tried, aquariams, indoor amusement parks, etc. Many decent lower paying jobs for people as well as some management jobs that are very decent with benefits, etc.

Best use? depends on the beholder I suppose. If the things I've noted happened, how bad would that be? The pyramid would still be a landmark, it would be paid for, which would in theory free up dollars for other projects, and if it ran it's course in 10 years?, then we could start over again.

Odds of happening, not good. The city should set some reasonable drop dead, fish or cut bait, deadline. The company is bad about stringing people along, they don't do anything that's bad for them, that I do know.

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