Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ethical Commitment Is To Public, Not Bass Pro Shop

It’s one strange relationship that Memphis city government has with Bass Pro Shop.

Over the past 38 months, there’s nothing in any of the four agreements they have signed that binds the store to anything. Of course, that shouldn’t be too surprising since three of the agreements actually bore the adjective, non-binding, in their titles.

And yet, city government officials contend that the agreements bind them - to only talking to the big box retailer.

Horns Of Dilemma

Today, we felt like we had a peek into this parallel universe when City Hall lead negotiator Robert Lipscomb said:
“I can’t negotiate with that person (any one other than Bass Pro Shop), because that would violate every ethical thing I can think of.”

The horns of this ethical dilemma surfaced when theme park proponent Greg Ericson announced that he will submit his own development agreement (complete with financing and a plan of action). That’s a gutsy strategy and actually helpful in clarifying these issues (we just hope it doesn’t include Mud Island).

There is no question that Mr. Lipscomb is serious about his ethical standards. However, that’s not what this is all about. It’s about acting in the best interests of the taxpayers of Memphis and Shelby County.

No Real Risk

After all, what’s really at stake for Mr. Lipscomb in negotiating with someone else? The risk that Bass Pro Shop may cancel an agreement that doesn’t mean anything anyway?

If Mr. Lipscomb feels that he and city government can’t negotiate with anyone but Bass Pro Shop, we don’t understand it, but we respect it.

But there’s no reason Shelby County Government can’t, and for that matter, there’s really nothing stopping the Pyramid Public Building Authority, which is the owner of The Pyramid in the first place.

Tunnel Vision

We respect Mr. Lipscomb not only for the sincerity that he exudes in his projects to improve his hometown, but for being one of the rare sources for new thinking in city government. We’ve agreed with him on some, and we’ve disagreed on others.

In this case, however, he seems to have fallen prey to one of those peculiarly public sector syndromes: He seems so determined to prove that city government can close a deal that he’s developed a tunnel vision that undermines all that he is doing.

For that reason alone, it is a good time for some fresh eyes to look at this issue. After all, Mr. Lipscomb has invested three years of his life in the futile hope that he can get Bass Pro Shop to ink a substantive agreement. We understand how hard it must be to admit that he’s fallen short of his goals, but there is no logical basis for Bass Pro Shop to be given exclusive control of The Pyramid for the next 18 months while it determines if it wants to move ahead.

Fresh Eyes

It seems to us that county government can provide this fresh look. City officials even seemed peeved that Shelby County Attorney Brian Kuhn rightly (not to mention ethically) ruled that the draft development agreement was a public record. Mr. Lipscomb, on the other hand, called it a “working document” which should not have been released to the public.

As for us, it’s immutable that on a matters of this importance, local government should always err on the side of public disclosure. The public deserves to see the details of the “development agreement” and they shouldn’t have to rely on city negotiators to spoon feed the information.

In light of the move to change the Tennessee Sunshine Law to allow a return to the days of backroom deals, we are thankful for the unshakable clarity of the Tennessee Public Records Act. As Mr. Kuhn understands and ruled, there is no exception for “working documents.”

An Easy Call

It’s actually so easy that even a non-lawyer can make the call: A public document is any document sent to a public official by someone outside of government. (We would even argue that it applies to any document sent by someone within government to another department of government, but we’ll save that more aggressive argument for another day.)

Suffice it to say, if ethics is the rules of conduct recognized for specific kinds of actions, Mr. Kuhn’s decision was anchored in the first rule of public ethics: The public’s right to know what is being done in their names. It is this transparency that lies at the heart of ethical government.

Back to The Pyramid: When it was built, The Pyramid was supposed to become the physical symbol of our confidence in the future of Memphis. It was supposed to mirror our greater ambitions.

Tomb Of Doom

Time after time, The Pyramid’s big promises have collapsed and promises have gone unmet. The Memphis Pyramid has buried more big dreams than its Egyptian predecessors buried kings. There’s been the Hard Rock Café, the inclinator ride to the apex, the American Music Experience, the NARAS museum, Island Earth, the Wonders exhibit, and finally, the arena itself.

Today, it’s not too late for The Pyramid to symbolize our confidence and speak to our ambition. Can we really say that our city’s ambition is truly captured in a Bass Pro Shop in the signature building on our doorstep?

What should we have learned from from Memphis’ Shlenker Era?

Sending A Message

It’s simply this - it wasn’t his cleverness or his charisma or his glibness that conned us into giving him the keys to the Pyramid. Rather, it was our own neediness and feelings of unworthiness, which manifested itself in the deadly notion that we don’t deserve the best. Instead, good is always good enough for Memphis, and we think we’re lucky to get it.

Our city fathers profess to have great ambitions for Memphis. This is our chance to aim high. Right now, with the push for Bass Pro shop, it unfortunately us beginning to feel like the same old Memphis to us.


sherman said...

Lipscomb is either a) the worst negotiator in history b) dumber than a post c) on the take. Which one is it? Doesn't really matter, but it's time for Herenton to find another friend besides Joseph Lee or Robert Lipscomb to handle this negotiation. As stated on this site many times, Lipscomb is not the man for the job and obviously does not have his employer's (yes, us the citizens of Memphis!) interests as a priority.

If this is how he is handling the Pyramid negotiations, can't wait to see the fiasco he is creating at the Fairgrounds! Mayor, do us all a favor & leave Mr. Lipscomb to demolishing decrepit public housing. He is in way over his head on these other projects.

Anonymous said...

Something to think about.

What is the status of the pyramid now ?

Does it reflect the current status of Memphis symbolically ?

“Back to The Pyramid: When it was built, The Pyramid was supposed to become the physical symbol of our confidence in the future of Memphis. It was supposed to mirror our greater ambitions.”

Smart City Consulting said...


That's Now you know why we've said to demolish it and do something better with the site.

But if the drill here is to find something to put in it, what's the rush? As for us, if there's really the need to put something in the building, we've already suggested that it makes more sense as part of the convention center. We've also suggested that we give it to St. Jude's (which does say something symbolically about Memphis).

virginiagirl said...

I know this blog focuses on informing the public about the often opaque workings of local government, and encouraging critical debate thereof, but why aren't you guys talking about the recent storms in your area? I've been following your blog for a few months because I'm strongly considering moving to Memphis and I'm trying to get a feel for the place. I looked you up again this morning because I was interested to see how city officials and private citizens responded to the crisis, and it's like nothing happened!

Anonymous said...

Hey Virginiagirl,
Aside from some tv coverage and MLGW activity, there isn't much happening with Hickory Hill and the tornado. The damaged mall in Hickory Hill is closing and the building will be demolished. Hickory Hill is another neighborhood, like Frayser and Raliegh, that have seen better days. It is being destroyed by foreclosures. Local government is fixated on some bait shop, a small amusement park, and some crazy idea to expand the convention center. Note that the city and county will be going through major financial problems in 2009 and 2010because of our reliance on property tax revenue which will decline substantially in the very near future. I wish I could say something more positive.

MRC-T said...

Actually, Virginiagirl, there are people helping, including the Mid-South Chapter of the Red Cross. They have opened up shelters for those who lost their homes and have more info on
their website.

bob said...

Lipscomb's role for years has been to wield or threaten the awesome power of eminent domain against one party, in order to assemble tracts of property to hand over to a different party (local developers), gift-wrapped with tax breaks and incentives.

Exactly what in his background and toolset makes him a good negotiator?

On the flip side, I would hardly characterize his treatment of Ericson, either now or in years past, as "ethical."

Anonymous said...

Actually, people post on here sometimes just to be negative about everyting. One of the stores in the mall is opening today. And good things are happening. Pay no attention to all those who crawled out of the city because of their poor attitudes.

Anonymous said...

Pay no attention to all those who crawled out of the city because of their poor attitudes.

and Lo they shall be called 'survivors'.

Anonymous said...

I find it very interesting that so many people are against the idea of dealing with Bass Pro Shop, and for the idea of putting an ammusement park there instead. Where were all these people when Mud Island went under, or, more recently, Libertyland? The truth of the matter is that this area has never really supported ongoing ammusement park type facilities, and probably never will. That is why I believe the local government officials are attempting to work with Bass Pro Shop. The last thing we need to have go into that structure is another failure.

As for the clamer relating to the proposed "rent", we still do not know what the final numbers may be. In reality, the rent is not the issue, but the tax dollars and incidental economic impact that a Bass Pro Shop Mega Store historically brings into an area is. It is my understanding that, on an annual bases, this amount is several millions of dollars (the last figures I heard were $40-50 million). This type of economic impact is far superior to any rent that may be groveled over in regards to what the Pyramid may bring. If one does not believe that, then they do not know their local history. I know that no one would argue with the success and impact that Federal Express has had on this community, and how lost we would be without them. I would, however, venture to say that they do not know the sweetheart deals that this community has given Federal Express to come and to stay here. In reality, both Federal Express and the community have benefited, and I believe the same will be true with Bass Pro Shop.

Now I will be the very first one to admit that our local government leaders are not known for their wisdom and foresight in these matters, but on this project, I do believe that they are very much on the right track and looking at the overall, long term, picture, and not a quick fix. All the "nay sayers" to this project need to think about that before they choose to throw the Bass out with the river water.

Skip Carnell

Smart City Consulting said...


There are too few FedEx's in Memphis for sure, but Bass Pro Shop sure isn't going to be one of them. Whatever money is spent at the store will flow out of Memphis, except for the salaries for largely low-paying jobs of the staff at the store. And the question is: what is the net new money pumped into the economy by Bass Pro?

Also, while we believe Bass Pro Shop is but the latest magic answer sought by Memphis, we have not suggested that the theme park is the best idea either. We seem to be laboring under the impression here that the only two options for this building are the two projects that happened to walk through the front door.

We believe that we ought to think about starting over and talk about a vision for the site and Mud Island - and if the better use would be to tear down the Pyramid to spark a new development plan for the area. We might be surprised at the kind of option we could have - one that has more than economic impact, but the kind that has an impact on our national image and reputation.