Thursday, July 19, 2007

If Sidney Shlenker Hadn't Existed, We Might Have Had To Invent Him

We rise in defense of Sidney Shlenker.

Now, we bet that’s something you didn’t ever expect to hear in this city.

We do it because of a comment in the otherwise impressive reporting by Chris Davis of the Memphis Flyer in his coverage of the Networx controversy.

In one of the articles, he of the multiple hats – both board member of MLGW and Networx - Nick Clark was quoted, comparing an offer to buy the troubled fiber optics company to the now legendary Sidney Shlenker, who fell from grace so fast that he went from being voted Memphis “Man of the Year” to much-despised goat in about three years.

Scapegoat

Mr. Davis states it thusly: “Memphis’ all-purpose bogeyman Sidney Schlenker (sic), the smooth-talking chiseler from Denver who sold Memphis on The Pyramid, a rideless theme park on Mud Island, and predating a memorable episode of The Simpsons, a monorail.”

First off, Mr. Shlenker arrived on the scene after The Pyramid had already been championed by a number of local leaders, including financier John Tigrett, the politically-connected Lewis Donelson and others possessed by a dream for a signature building on the city’s riverfront. It was they, not Mr. Shlenker, who promised an arena for $39 million, “including the balloons at the opening,” as Mr. Tigrett once promised our mayors.

Second, it’s not as if Mr. Shlenker really conned anybody in Memphis. After all, Mr. Tigrett, well-respected Memphian and international tycoon, brought him in to develop the private attractions in The Pyramid and told the Shelby County Board of Commissioners and Memphis City Council that he personally vouched for him. He said Mr. Shlenker was the only person who could accomplish Memphis’ dreams of turning The Pyramid into a 365-day tourist destination in the Pinch District.

After all, Mr. Shlenker had been chief executive officer of the Houston Astrodome's parent company; he had founded Pace Management, which ahead of its time, produced and promoted Broadway shows and rock concerts, and owned theaters; and was a minority owner of the NBA's Houston Rockets and then owner of Denver Nuggets. We suspect that like most Memphians, Mr. Clark has long since forgotten Mr. Shlenker's resume.

Big And Bigger

In the end, it wasn’t Mr. Shlenker’s greed that ruined the big plans for The Pyramid. It was city government’s. Once Mayor Dick Hackett convinced Mr. Shlenker that he should add Mud Island to his already wildly flamboyant concepts for the new arena under construction, the entire project started to collapse under its own weight.

Had he been allowed to focus his financing and his plans on just The Pyramid, it seems likely that he could have succeeded.

It’s also worth remembering that it wasn’t just Mr. Shlenker’s plans that kept shape-shifting. So did the promise by Hard Rock Café founder Isaac Tigrett that he’d build one of the chain’s restaurants in the bottom of The Pyramid.

While Mr. Shlenker can’t seem to catch a break by the authors of the city’s history, it’s essentially a revisionist history that portrays him as conman and unethical fast talker. He was what the city asked him to be, and it was he who put all of his financial chips into the game against mounting odds and in the face of growing dissension with his partners.

Jaws Of Victory

In the end, he lost everything at the precise moment when it appeared that success was finally at hand. By that time, he and Mr. Tigrett would no longer come to a meeting in City Hall at the same time. Only days after a letter of intent was delivered from French bank Société Générale, agreeing to provide Pyramid financing for the music attraction, the restaurant, the inclinator and the attraction at the apex, the offer was withdrawn when the bankers received a devastating letter from a Memphian whom they would not identify that caused the bank to question and summarily withdraw the loan.

Mr. Davis is right in describing Mr. Shlenker as Memphis’ all-purpose bogeyman, because as Mr. Clark’s comments pointed out, he can still be routinely trotted out and vilified in a retelling of Pyramid history that often strays widely of the facts.

The Pyramid remains one of the city’s most interesting tales, with more twists and turns than a Chris Carter X-Files story lines. As the conflict between Mr. Shlenker and Mr. Tigrett boiled over, Shelby County Attorney Brian Kuhn was sent as an emissary from Mayor Hackett and County Mayor Bill Morris to both of them, delivering a message that their personal dispute would not be allowed to erupt in the mayors’ offices any more

Last Rites

Sitting up in his hospital bed in the Medical Center, Mr. Shlenker smiled broadly – once again inspiring comparisons of Ernie Kovacs with his fake teeth – and good naturedly agreed. Delivering the same message to Mr. Tigrett in his riverfront penthouse was altogether different. He erupted and told the mayors’ attorney to deliver a simple message: You can both go to hell, and I will do whatever I please, because you are lily-livered cowards.

And he did.

A few weeks later, the entire Pyramid plan was as dead as Mr. Shlenker’s chances of being named again as “Man of the Year.”

All of this should serve as a cautionary tale for what strange things can happen when political expediency and civic boosterism converge and give birth to promises that outstrip common sense. It is in such a cauldron that promoters of implausible ideas are treated as saviors of the city by politicians reluctant to conduct basic due diligence for fear of having to abandon the latest magic answer to the problems of Memphis.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Anybody remember the 'first' (and last) annual Jimmy Buffett Island Paradise Party on Mud Island courtesy of the Schlenker & co.
$25 lawn seats with limited views, no crowd control, crappy sound system, $7 cold hamburgers and hot beer?

I commented to all and sundry that 'watch that fella-anybody who can f*ck up a simple BUFFETT concert hasnt got a clue.'

Smart City Consulting said...

Exactly our point. If the city had let him just pay attention to one big project, he could have pulled it off. Mud Island was a distraction and at best and just bled his finances faster. And Mud Island had no real infrastructure for an outdoor concert, no capacity for concessions on this scale, etc.

walter dawson said...

when sidney hit town, i was executive metro editor at the ca. we sent three of our best reporters to check him out in houston, denver and one other city that escapes me now. they came back with good tales of how sidney had done what he said he would do and had been successful at it. now, maybe the partners and other people we talked to were still figuring on doing business with sidney in the future and didn't want to jeopardize that by saying anything negative -- or maybe they really had no ax to grind because of the success they had enjoyed in their partnerships with him. don't know for sure. but i always wondered what strings tigrett pulled to get sidney here in the first place and then to abandon him later. tigrett never would tell us or the public. and memphis has paid for his silence ever since. what you're saying in this post backs up my suspicion. thanks for sharing it.

walter dawson said...

one other comment on mud island: in an earlier incarnation at the ca, i was the first rock writer at the paper ('74 to '84), and mud island was one screwed up venue for concerts -- can't blame that on shlenker. the first concert held there, girls swarmed into the boys' bathroom because theirs were too crowded and had too long a line. no one thought that women might need more toilets than men. the sound system was at the mercy of the mississippi river winds, and afternoon shows (like the first of two merle haggard concerts one saturday) were brutal because of the heat. drink vendors were no more handy than girls' bathrooms. as much as my daughters and i enjoyed mud island as a history lesson (hey, it wasn't that bad), its concert business has been sorely planned.

Smart City Consulting said...

Walter: Always a great source for historical perspective and insight. Thanks.

Eric O said...

RE: and it was he who put all of his financial chips into the game against mounting odds and in the face of growing dissension with his partners.

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what financial chips (money) did he lose? I understood Shlenker was not playing with his own money.

wrong?

Anonymous said...

Sidney Shlenker was highly successful before Memphis. He lost more in Memphis than Memphis lost -Yes he lost some of his own money as well as his reputation. I knew him and his family.

He was a trully dynamic and decent human being.

Alana Shlenker said...

First, I would just like to thank all of you for your truly brilliant analysis of my fathers hard work; he would have been riveted. Secondly, to the columnist, I am deeply touched by the title alone and the honest defense for my father. I plan on following in his footsteps and hopefully I am able to finish all of the projects he poured his heart and soul into. I will bring the "Man of the Year" kind of respect back to the Shlenker legacy in Memphis and to hear your opinions have been very helpful.

If anyone would like to email me for further discussion you my do so.

alanashlenker@gmail.com

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Anonymous said...

Was the phrase "world class" used?