Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tomb Of Tomb Beckons More Projects

Memphis’ biggest stocking – which has always promised more than it delivered – remains to be stuffed – The Pyramid.

We’ve never been fans of the Bass Pro Shop proposal, a disdain made visceral with the prospects of a fish logo on the side of our signature building on the riverfront. But then again, even if we were fans of the outdoor store, we’d still be baffled by city government’s single-minded pursuit of it as if it’s the only game in town.

While there are many questions to be answered on the theme park concept pushed by Memphian Greg Ericsson and now gaining traction, there’s really no logic in not giving him the same non-binding letter of intent given three times already to Bass Pro Shop despite its failures to hit any of the previously announced deadlines.

Promises, Promises

This should all feel so familiar. After all, it’s almost been 20 years since John Tigrett and Sidney Shlenker promised a “state-of-the-art arena” and a “365-day a year tourist attraction.” Of course, we got neither, and before the debacle was over, city and county governments had to step in to get the building open, albeit it only partially since more than 150,000 square feet of space remained undeveloped.

Over the years, except for the time when the Memphis Wonders exhibitions were a tenant, there’s never been an attraction in the so-called private tenant space on the north side of The Pyramid, and certainly nothing close to a year-round tenant.

That doesn’t mean that local government didn’t try.

Deja Vu All Over Again

Several times, it started the process to find a developer for an attraction and once, it got within in 24 hours of an announcement before Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton – in a move still shrouded in mystery – pulled the plug and backed out of the deal to give the talented Marius Penczner of Memphis the opportunity to put in an ecologically-oriented tourist attraction that was clearly ahead of its time.

In the aftermath, Mr. Penczner left a hometown in disgust, taking his place as one of the nation’s leading political consultants and videographers and Memphis was left with yet another squandered opportunity to put something in The Pyramid.

That was 1993. An opposing proposal for the building at the time was presented by Mr. Ericsson, and ultimately he and Mr. Penczner joined forces. For the 14 years, Mr. Ericsson’s been begging for city government to listen to his ideas.

It's About One Thing

Finally, there appears to be progress from his point of view. The patience of county commissioners, who had remained silent as city government handled the point on the Bass Pro Shop deal, finally reached its breaking point and called for an end to the retailer’s exclusive position in the negotiations.

Under new pressure, city government finally acts as if it will at least give Mr. Ericsson a fair shot and it will conduct due diligence on his proposal. Buoyed by the new attention, the Ericsson group runs the risk of overplaying its hand, already unveiling a revamped proposal that seemed to be too much of a good thing and called for new development at Mud Island.

It all conjured up images of the Shlenker days, when he could have successfully finished his original plans for The Pyramid if he’d just stayed focused. Instead, his appetite grew larger and larger as he rolled out his much derided plans for Rakapolis on Mud Island.

Needed: Answers

As he begins to persuade Memphis that his project is best, Mr. Ericsson needs to remember a primary lesson from those days, chiefly, the logic of doing one thing at a time, and after proving that you can develop The Pyramid, then moving on to other things.

There are clearly many questions to be answered about the Ericsson proposal, and googling the names of his major investors does nothing to quieten them. Questions about financial stability also harken back to the Tigrett/Shlenker days when big promises of major financing became monthly events.

If Mr. Ericsson is to get the serious consideration he seeks, he needs to put to rest – quickly - any questions about his investors and their promised financing for his Pyramid Adventure project. If the past should teach him anything, it’s how easy it is to go from hero to goat when reality never matches up with the promises. (Remember the halcyon days of Mr. Shlenker when he was voted “Memphian of the Year.”)

Ignore Six Flags' Problems

Meanwhile, the promise of a $250 million investment in a themed attraction runs counter to all trends in the entertainment industry. Also, he needs to put to rest speculation that the project is all about getting control of The Pyramid in hopes of the Tennessee Legislature legalizing gambling. In other words, the sooner the questions get answered, the better off we’ll all be, particularly Mr. Ericsson.

After all, the “Tomb of Doom” lived up to its name every time University of Memphis took the basketball court, but it also came to characterize the big ideas, bold announcements and politically-driven pursuits of something, almost anything, to fill the building.

Once politicians have gotten out in front of a project like the one involving Bass Pro Shop, the advantage decidedly shifts to the business side of the table. Threatened by political embarrassment and loss of face, city staffers become under increasing pressure to cut a deal to make something happen.

Manipulating Local Government

That’s why it sometimes looks like city government has the equivalent to “new car fever,” feverishly grasping at anything to make the project look like its substantial and imminent. Bass Pro Shop’s experience in manipulating governments like ours puts it firmly in the driver’s seat. It routinely wrings $25-40 million out of local governments across the U.S. for its stores.

As we’ve frequently reported in our updates, Buffalo, New York, is in its sixth year of trying to convert Bass Pro Shop’s promises for a downtown megastore on the waterfront into reality. So far, the company has reneged on its pledge to convert an abandoned arena into a giant store, it’s changed location, it’s changed its financial plan and it’s changed the timeline.

Regardless of what the final decision is at The Pyramid, we just hope that it won’t be made in an action of political desperation. At the end of the day, there are worse things than an empty arena.