Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Biggest Fish Story of All

Ignore the media hype and the headline-grabbing bus ride to the Bass Pro Shop mother ship in Springfield, Missouri, there was no substantive progress in the deadline-defying proposal to convert The Pyramid into a store.

Bass Pro Shop has signed what is a glorified non-binding letter of intent. This time, it’s called a “development agreement.”

But it’s not like a serious development agreement. These are normally reciprocal agreements: You do something, and I’ll do something, because we’ve agreed that we want to make something happen and we are both at risk. In this one, we do something and Bass Pro Shop can do whatever it wants.

Quick Fixes

That’s because with this agreement, the retail chain has the ability to walk away. All it has to do is decide that there are reasons – financial, structural, or they can pretty much name their own - why The Pyramid doesn’t work for them.

Before we say any more about this, we want to get the terminology right. This is about a store. It’s not a destination. It’s not a tourist attraction. It's not an attractor. It’s not a magic bullet. It’s a store.

It’s just the latest chapter in our favorite pastime - chasing yet another quick fix. More than anything, Bass Pro Shop perpetuates the sense of desperation that seems to characterize so much of what we do, and most disturbingly, it accurately speaks to the pervasive lack of self-worth that results in projects like this one.

It’s Optional

Coverage by The Commercial Appeal suggests that the agreement is stronger because Bass Pro Shops will begin paying rent. Not really. The agreement is nothing more than an option to develop.

There were two strange things in the newspaper’s coverage: 1) it didn’t tell how much the rent is, and 2) the silence of Bass Pro Shop executives was deafening.

It almost feels like someone – most likely Bass Pro Shop as a result of its experience in manipulating governments across the country to get multi-million dollar subsidies - made the political judgment that dangling rent as bait would keep us on the hook a little longer, and judging by city administration officials’ comments, they’re in too deep to admit that all of this has just become an embarrassment (not to even mention that the giant jumping bass to be painted on the side of The Pyramid is tantamount to writing “Hicksville, USA” in 310-foot letters on the signature building on the Memphis riverfront).

Are we really supposed to believe that it's in our overall civic interest to put millions of dollars in the pocket of a national chain of stores? Are we really supposed to feel a burst of civic pride in using our most recognizable public building for this?

Political Manipulations

There is no retailer in the U.S. more skilled in wringing public subsidies from governments than Bass Pro Shop, or more adept in dragging out projects in ways that allow them to leverage political expediencies against the people negotiating on behalf of local government.

They know how it works. The longer they drag it out, the greater is the pressure on the politicians to show that they can get something done. The longer they drag it out, the more they can ask for. If you want to see how it’s done, just look to Buffalo, New York.

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a couple of years, we check in on Buffalo from time to time to see how Bass Pro Shop fulfilled its 2004 promise to develop an empty downtown auditorium into a massive megastore.

Paper Tigers

Back then, after years of negotiation, in one of those grand announcements for which government has become known, the governor of New York, the mayor of Buffalo, downtown redevelopment officials, Chamber types and myriad functionaries cheerily put on camouflage vests and red Bass Pro baseball caps to announce with fanfare that the 250,000 square foot megastore would be the latest catalyst to the rebirth of the Lake Erie city’s downtown.

And yet, time after time, as city and state leaders pressed to consummate a binding agreement, Bass Pro Shop wiggled on the line. It talked about larger investments to buy time, it talked about a bigger project to keep every one at the table, but in the end, it controlled the timetable and the project.

Government set deadlines and demanded signs of progress, but they were little more than paper tigers, because it was Bass Pro Shop calling the shots.

Non-binding Agreements

After years of encouraging comments and promises, Bass Pro Shop eventually announced that it wasn’t interested in the auditorium conversion, and instead, it wanted a new location – the key spot in the middle of the $250 million Erie Canal Harbor development. Oh, and by the way, it said that it had reduced the size of the store to 100,000 square feet, which essentially put it on par with its regular stores.

But about a year ago, with noticeably less fanfare, another announcement was made: Bass Pro Shop would indeed become the magnet for the new five-acre project overlooking the Buffalo River. To show how serious it was, the retailer signed another agreement – this one was called a “pre-development agreement.”

The store said it would pay $300,000 in what is essentially rent while Buffalo’s $25 million public incentive would be spent in preparing the site and constructing the three-story building for the retailer. Meanwhile, the city will get $10 million from state government to tear down the vacant auditorium that Bass Pro Shop had promised to transform.

The Real Deal…Again

In conjunction with the 2007 announcement, there were the customary questionable economic impact numbers and superlatives from politicians, who hailed it as an even better deal than the long-stalled one. And yet, even one of its longtime boosters felt compelled to assure his fellow citizens: “This is the real deal.”

It was announced that construction would start this spring and the store would open in mid-2009. Apparently, the business community isn’t convinced. In an October survey by Buffalo’s weekly business newspaper, business leaders voted on whether the project would ever get done. They said yes – 177 to 176.

More to the point, Bass Pro Shop seems to be keeping its options open. Its website shows a proposed store in Buffalo, but it has nothing about its latest agreement, instead listing the information about the glorious 2004 press conference whose substance has been moot for more than a year.

All of this should be a cautionary tale for Memphis, where history seems to be repeating itself in startlingly similar detail. Apparently, we are blinded by the unfounded idea that a sporting goods store is going to pull millions of people off the interstate (there’s also the unanswered question of whether they aren't pulled right back on after shopping). It’s also questionable that the sporting goods store, which, with its competitors, are becoming ubiquitous to interstate travelers, will really be so unique to achieve the spectacular – and rarely measured - projections.

Q & A

It’s unclear if there are the votes to support the Herenton Administration’s pitch for Bass Pro Shop, but we predict that it will inevitably pass. We cannot remember a vote that Mayor Herenton seriously wanted that he didn’t get, and on this one, even City Hall insiders are surprised by the single-minded backing by the administration - to the point that it sparks speculation that the incremental sales tax revenue from a retailer is needed to prop up the revenues used to pay for the FedEx Forum or to pay for a new convention center.

Whatever, this building – leaping fish logo and all - will immediately symbolize Memphis’ ambition and self-image such that it is. As we said Friday, part of our problem with all of this is that it began with the wrong question.

It shouldn't have been: how do we fill up The Pyramid with a tenant? Rather, it should have been: what can we do with the building and/or the site that makes the most sense for a city that desperately needs more vibrancy, more ambition, more talent, more innovation and more entrepreneurship?

When you ask the wrong question, you inevitably come up with the wrong answer. And that's what Bass Pro Shop feels like to us.

Previous Posts On This Subject:
December 19, 2007
May 13, 2007
January 23, 2007
August 22, 2006
March 7, 2006
February 8, 2006


Pyramidaholic said...

Oh heck, here's my answer.

Amie said...

The idea that a giant fishing store is the answer to the pyramid makes me sick. Stuff like this is what makes Memphis look like LOSERVILLE to the rest of the world.

Anonymous said...

Forbes magazine puts us 60th in best places to find a job. Boy, this will help make us look like an exciting, progressive, forward-thinking place. I may shop at Bass Pro to get my gear so I can get out of Memphis if this is the best we can do.

Save This MG said...

I realize that Bass Pro may not be the best choice and I hear all of the folks out there talking about a better fit or asking a different question but what I'm NOT hearing are alternatives other than the amusement park.

If there is a better fit for the pyramid then what is it? Why aren't we talking about that?

George said...

Save this mg,

Still asking the wrong question. You appear to be saying what is the best fit for the Pyramid when, I think, SCC is saying what is the vision we want for Memphis; of which the pyramid may play an important part because it is/can/should be a signature building.

Is "Bait for sale" the signature we want on Memphis?

The question now is how do we get the city off the dime on this answer and turn it toward asking the right questions? I saw a very similar situation in Flint, MI years ago when they created "Auto World," the disneyland solution to a crumbling auto industry. Drove the city into it's current state.

When I interviewed a major player in that decision his response was that everyone knew it was the wrong thing to do but it had taken on a life of it's own and no one could back off of it. That seems to be where we are with "the big fish and and the pyramid." That may well be the book title for the critique of this approach to development to be written in the not too distant future.

Anonymous said...

I think an obvious use for the Pyramid would be an extension of the convention center.
They mayor wants a new or expanded convention center, and we've got an iconic, very large building sitting empty near the current convention center.
Imagine having your event or meeting atop a pyramid overlooking the river? You could build multilevel convention space (for both small and really large) inside the building, as well as hotel space. Add a parking garage where the current open space is and I would think you're in business.
The only concern would be having our city do this in a efficient way. Without a private company like the Grizzlies overseeing the project, I wouldn't be confident it would come in on time or within budget.

Anonymous said...

10:55, That might be as good an idea as I have seen on this matter.

Smart City Consulting said...

savethismg: Why is this a problem that we have to solve right now at all? If there are no better ideas, shutter it up until something better comes along. We'll give our best suggestion tomorrow.

Smart City Consulting said...

anonymous 10:55: you preempted the suggestion that we're going to make tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Hicksville is giving Memphis the benefit of a doubt. A cable show last night was talking about how Nashville was attracting lots of young professionals because it had energy, sends a positive and progressive message and has made a point of only building buildings that are top-notch and say something about the city's confidence.

I immediately thought of the giant fish on our skyline. Puh-leese!

The 1020 said...

The idea of making the pyramid an extension of the convention center seems to be almost a "no duh" sort of proposition. Of course, like mg said, finding a way to manage it efficiently is a bit daunting. Where's Sidney Schlenker when you need him? Ha.

Anonymous said...

The question I immediately ask myself isn't what should we do with the pyramid, but why don't we read this kind of information in the paper?

Anonymous said...

Price items from Bass Pro then price the same items online. Bass Pro can't compete.

Go to Bass Pro out east and have a look around. Are the people shoping there the type to shop downtown? Nope.

Also if you fish for sport that's one thing but I wouldn't advise eating fish from any of the local waters.

Anonymous said...

Dear 8:53,

As a regular shopper of the store "out east" I call BS; IF "the type" who shop there (read: people like ME) don't shop downtown, it's at least partly because we know there's a vocal contingent of smug bastards who live down there don't want to be associated with us. God forbid your redneck neighbors spoil your pristine new urbanist downtown renaissance with our filthy money.

As a resident of Forgotten Memphis (Raleigh represent!), I'd love to come downtown and shop, but frankly theres nothing there for me. If it weren't the occasional interesting event at the Cannon Center or the DeltaAxis venues, I doubt I'd ever be downtown. I'd have loved this excuse to come down, shop a while, and head over to the pinch for a bite to eat.

At any rate, the "bait shop" sure as hell beats some theme park. Memphis has proven it's at least able to support one of these things. (even if it is apparently to our everlasting shame)