Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Memphis' Unworthiness Gives Power To Pyramid Projects

It seems that we're about to add another verb to our uniquely Memphis vocabulary: to be "Bass Pro'ed."

Previously posted March 7, 2006:

It all feels eerily familiar – the politicians’ self-congratulations, the civic hyperbole, the bureaucrats leading the rounds of applause, the army of cameras and reporters.

It’s one of Memphis’ favorite pastimes – another development plan for The Pyramid.

This time, it was Bass Pro Shop that is the answer to realizing the building’s potential. Or will it become the latest grand idea laid to rest in the Tomb of Doom along all the others?

Noun To Verb

It all began in the late 1980’s with the unforgettable Sidney Shlenker. His promises ended up as elusive as a realistic financial plan for his grand vision for The Pyramid.

In the course of a few years, he went from Memphis’ “Man of the Year” to a verb:

shlenker (SHLINK-ur), v., 1) to dupe. 2) to fool. 3) to take advantage of people with too little self-esteem to say no. (From Southern, unknown derivation, possibly river-related.)


Shlenker is now the stuff of mythology, relegated to stories of a modern Carnival huckster who hypnotized the city and county into giving him control of their sparkling, new signature building. Forgotten these days are some interesting facts: one, he owned a National Basketball Association team in Denver, he had been CEO of the Houston Astrodome, he had co-founded Pace Entertainment (the largest live entertainment company in its day) until bought by the ever-hungry SFX and most remarkably of all, he was a banker. Two, his credibility was vouched for by one of Memphis leading citizens, John Tigrett. Three, after years of searching vainly for bank financing, at the 11th hour as his contract was being voided, he found the money for his project in a French bank, but the deal fell quickly apart when the bank received an anonymous, explosive letter attacking him, postmark: downtown Memphis.

No, we’re not defending Shlenker, but it’s just a little hard to place all the blame on the pickpocket when you put his hands in your pocket.

In that same time period, there was the Isaac Tigrett announcement that The Pyramid would boast Memphis’ long-awaited Hard Rock Café, but the deal fell apart when his board complained that they had not approved it and they had no interest in opening here.


Then, after a lengthy process of city and county government, there was the selection of gifted Memphis photographer Marius Penczner to add his eco-theme park, Island Earth, to the building. However, Mayor Herenton jerked his support from the project at the last minute, and Mr. Penczner went on to film and produce award-winning commercials for the Clinton/Gore campaign and was media adviser to the Gore for President campaign. With the inescapable feeling that he had been repudiated by his hometown, he moved to Nashville.

Then there was the on-again and off-again flirtation with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for the Grammy Hall of Fame, or some permutation of it. Renderings were produced, committees were formed, endless meetings were held and mayors’ blessings were bestowed. The only thing missing was the money to do it.

So, now we’ve moved to Bass Pro Shops as Memphis again searches for the elusive answer to the mystery of The Pyramid’s future. While there’s nothing definite and there are no signatures on the dotted line, it appears that it will happen.

Asking Right Question

If city and county governments’ question is, “How can we get a tenant so we can keep The Pyramid open,” they’ve come up with a winning answer. After 15 years of various schemes and plans (and the building still without even the inclinator to the apex), the special task force on Pyramid reuse seems to have a proposal that can get done.

However, if the question is, “What can be done with The Pyramid that enhances Memphis’ national image and attracts the young professions that we so desperately need,” Bass Pro Shop misses the mark. Widely.

At a time when Memphis lacks any cohesive economic plan, and these days that especially means a talent strategy to attract 25-34 year-old knowledge economy workers, it is hard to imagine that the giant fish retail theme park will be a plus.

It's Talent, Stupid

It’s ironic that Memphis led the nation in research into this key demographic, which is determining which cities fail and which cities succeed. And yet, armed with definitive recommendations from the Memphis Talent Magnet Report, the results of the Memphis Manifesto Summit and the data of the Young and Restless studies, Memphis has never been able to leverage this knowledge into a strategy that can work.

Already, we know about Memphis’ drawbacks from major corporate recruiters in Memphis and members of the young professionals’ demographic group. In the eyes of these workers, Memphis is seen as provincial, slow-moving, dull and a big country town. They want to live and work in cities that are vibrant, have a visible creative culture and opportunities for unique, memorable experiences.

With the pressing need to correct these misperceptions and communicate a new image, city and county governments are turning over the region’s signature building to Bass Pro Shop, a highly successful company with quality leadership. But the question remains: is this the best use of The Pyramid and will it create a buzz about Memphis as a vibrant, 21st century city teeming with creativity?

Symbols Matter

When it was built, The Pyramid was supposed to symbolize our confidence in the future of Memphis. Today, its reuse should symbolize our confidence that we will be a city competitive in the new economy.

As we said, the committee that did a fine job in luring Bass Pro Shop to The Pyramid answered the question that they were given. We just wonder if it was the right question.

And, what did we learn from Memphis’ Shlenker Era? 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 feeling of unworthiness, which manifests itself in the deadly notion that we don’t deserve the best, that whatever we get is good enough and that we’re lucky to get it.

The good news is that Jim Hagale, president of Bass Pro Shop, is no Sidney Shlenker. Here's hoping we're not the same old Memphis.

1 comment:

The 1020 said...

So true. Well put - again.