Sunday, February 24, 2008

Pyramid Paralysis Hits Analysis

Even a novice to the ways of government could interpret the signs, so they are painfully obvious to someone with the level of experience possessed by Greg Ericson. He’s getting the runaround.

Even to people just casually acquainted with city government’s obsession with a Bass Pro Shop store inside The Pyramid, City Hall’s recent “Analysis of Redevelopment Proposals” was wince-provoking.

Even supporters of the city’s position are privately conceding that the report was amateurish and one-sided and sends the unfortunate (and hopefully unfounded) message that games were afoot in the single-minded presentations last week to Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Analysis In Name Only

At best, it’s abundantly clear that city government advocates for Bass Pro Shop are unable at this point to even see the playing field, much less make sure that it is level. The pointed criticisms of the Ericson team, who are pushing for a theme park in The Pyramid, have approached the threshold for a lawsuit for defamation.

If there is anything clear about the Bass Pro Shop project at this point, it isn’t that it’s the perfect fit for The Pyramid, but that all of this is now perfectly personal. That’s why Mr. Ericson should know by now that the heat on him will be turned up every time he aggressively campaigns for his development project. And it does.

The double standard used for evaluating the two most publicized Pyramid options leaps off the pages of the 50-page “analysis.”

Hard Sale

It seems to accept numbers from Bass Pro Shop as if they are gospel, but consistently refuses to accept the Ericson Group’s word for anything. For example, there is a letter from the chairman of The Pyramid Re-use Committee stating flatly that the store has a “demonstrable ability to attract between 2 and 4 million visitors a year” and stating later in the same letter that the store “can unquestionably guarantee a draw of 2-4 million visitors a year.”

We’ve written previously about the silliness of labeling fishing store customers as visitors, so we won’t belabor that point again, but if in fact Bass Pro can “unquestionably guarantee” 2-4 million customers a year, let them. Let’s write that threshold into the budget as a performance standard that the store has to reach and its rent will be based on its delivering on that promise.

Our confidence in the report was shaken when one of its first pages said The Pyramid was “totally funded by the city and county.” Of course, that’s not true. About $15 million of the building’s roughly $65 million construction price came from State of Tennessee with University of Memphis as the conduit. It also said that the building contains more than 300,000 square feet, another questionable statement.

Ericson Frustration

While pounding its point that theme park performance is weak, the report glosses over some growing softness in the fishing and hunting store retail sector. Interestingly, in the past, Bass Pro Shop has even called itself a theme park for outdoor enthusiasts, but this contradiction in terms gets no mention.

The “Analysis of Redevelopment Proposals” appears to consist of some rehashed reports by a consultant to the reuse committee and other authorities who receive their checks from city government. All in all, it was breath-taking in its lack of objectivity and basic fairness.

Following presentations before city and county legislative bodies by Bass Pro supporters, Ericson forces were noticeably upset and could quickly rattle off what they called a couple dozen errors of fact. In fact, in their opinion, the misinformation was so pervasive and so premeditated that they were left perplexed about how to correct the errors.

Checking The Source

So, they began with an email to RKG consultant Richard Gsottschneider, who was hired to help The Pyramid Reuse Committee several years ago. In the email, Mr. Ericson asked the source of the data used to reach some of the firm’s conclusions. It wasn’t an unreasonable request, and it’s hard to understand why a firm of RKG’s reputation wouldn’t welcome the chance to respond.

In particular, Mr. Ericson was curious about the source of theme park data since he didn’t think he had been asked for this information. Mr. Gsottschneider replied that Mr. Ericson should send requests for information to Mr. Robert Lipscomb, the city official leading the battle for Mr. Ericson’s competitor.

After receiving an email from Mr. Ericson, Mr. Lipscomb - to his credit - said it would not be a problem and asked his interim administrator for compliance and reporting to take care of it.

Call Forwarding

At one minute before five o’clock Friday afternoon, that administrator emailed Mr. Ericson: “Your request for information must be made through the City Attorney’s Office. You may contact Bridgette Handy-Clay in order to make your request. The City Attorney’s Office telephone number is 576-6614.”

At this point, it’s hard to convincingly argue with the Ericson Group that it’s not getting the runaround. We’re hoping that it’s just another example of the bureaucratic nature of the public sector at its worst. After all, it’s one thing to advocate a specific position; it’s another thing altogether to stonewall and play games with your own taxpayers, even those who disagree with you.

In an age where transparency and accountability are reasonable expectations by citizens for their government, the handling of the Bass Pro Shop project has been disappointing.

Destination Retail

Increasingly, City Hall insiders say that Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton himself shakes his head about all this, but in keeping with his hands-off style of management, he’s letting the process run its course. His strongest hint that he may not share the enthusiasm by some of his highest aides was in his offhand comment several weeks ago that perhaps The Pyramid should just be torn down.

Meanwhile, the safety valve for this spectacle is the fact that Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton has strong reservations about the Bass Pro Shop project and the process to determine the best development option for The Pyramid. At least, that top-level reticence seems to inject some much-needed objectivity and maturity into the process.

In the short term, however, get ready to hear an overdose of the term, “destination retail.” That’s the drumbeat that’ll be used to describe Bass Pro Shop, summoning up for us memories of previous silver bullets like “pedestrian malls,” “festival marketplaces” and “downtown aquariums.”


Regardless of what is finally decided, we can only hope that the way that the process is handled doesn’t further erode the public’s support for the final decision that is reached.

Of course, for The Pyramid, public support was fragile on its best days. From the time that it opened to a couple of years before it closed, there was never a professional poll that didn’t show that Shelby County was split down the middle on the arena.

Even after years of The Pyramid serving as the “Tomb of Doom” for visiting teams tackling University of Memphis’ basketball team, the polling results showed that 50 percent of the public thought the new arena was a good idea and the exact same percentage thought it was not.

It would be interesting to know where the public stands these days on the various plans for the building; however, as is often the case in projects like this, no one seems particularly interested in knowing what our own people think.


Aaron said...

Seems like a survey would be appropriate. I am willing to do it if need be. I guess the big question is whether anyone would look at it?

Yankee said...

I just moved to Memphis from the Northeast. I thought politics was bad there. I had no idea how bad it could be. Come on. A sporting goods store? Idiots. They are idiots. A theme park in the pyramid would be "Vegasesque." It would be known all over the country. Its just plain cool. It would attract a new demographic of tourist, not the same "let's visit Graceland" crowd that Memphis already gets. There is only so much beer one can drink on Beale, and some of us are content to acknowledge Elvis was not a god, and that paying $50 of whatever to see his home is stupid. This city needs that theme park. It does not need another sporting goods store (or mega store). If you want to visit a Bass Pro Shop, go to the one we already have (its right off of I40 out near the Appling Exit).

Anonymous said...

You have hit the nail right on the head. Is there any way we can just fire the entire city government and just start over fresh. This current administration seems to have a particular skill for making STUPID decisions for OUR city.