Monday, February 04, 2008

Pyramid Scheme For New Convention Center Complex

There is little question that city and county governments made a serious misjudgment when they expanded the Memphis Cook Convention Center.

Because of it, we’re inclined not to dismiss out of hand Mayor Willie W. Herenton’s proposal for a new or expanded convention center.

Before the expansion, the Memphis convention center was a bunker. After the expansion, it is simply a bunker with an incongruous annex.


To complement its fortress appearance or because of it, the convention center is drab and dreary and predestines Memphis to remain a third-tier convention city.

In a world characterized by stylish, light-filled convention centers, Memphis Cook Convention Center is a throwback to another age. If you doubt it, please check out the photographs on this post. They show Pittsburgh’s convention center, and while it’s probably the best of its kind, it does in fact reflect the more appealing architecture prevalent in today’s convention centers.

The Memphis convention center expansion – setting aside for the moment the fact that it cost twice its original projection and took twice as long to complete – was the architectural equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. The expansion does little to offset the gloomy interior and the gloomier meeting experience in the convention center, and in truth, the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts – as much of an upgrade as it was from the old auditorium - is equally meager when compared to similar halls in other cities.

Locked In Place

Here’s the thing: the woeful decision about expansion and the $92 million thrown at it have essentially locked Memphis in place for at least 20 years as the bonds are paid in a complicated swap of revenues between the Tourism Development Zone and the hotel-motel taxes that took place to cobble together funding for FedEx Forum.

As a result, any new convention center would need to be accompanied by new sources of revenues, because the cost of a $300 million facility – a moderately-priced center - would be about $18 million a year for two decades.

If Mayor Herenton’s objective is to provide Memphis with a convention center that attracts meeting and convention planners, there might be a way to kill two birds with one stone – combining our two problem buildings, the convention center and The Pyramid into a single high-concept facility that no other city can emulate.

Right In Front Of Us

For that reason, we are resurrecting our suggestion of several years ago.

For years, convention center board members have complained that Memphis lacks the large, unobstructed exhibition hall sought by many tenants. There’s an easy place to find it – in The Pyramid.

And, it’s possible to do it without prohibitively expensive retrofits or costly upgrades. Rather, a new floor can be “dropped” into The Pyramid at the level of the concourse. There’s no reason to even remove the seats in the bowl; leave them there and put the floor over them.


It seems within the realm of possibility that about 200,000 of exhibition space – free of any columns or obstructions – could come on-line much quicker than building a new convention center. To top it off, the 150,000 of office and Wonders space can be converted into meeting rooms or possibly hotel rooms. (The upper part of The Pyramid will not support a floor of hotel rooms without a number of new pilings or stronger super structure.)

Most of all, the long-awaited inclinator – the phantom cash cow for the building – could finally be added to the building, and the two-story, 10,000 square feet apex could finally be the profit center that every feasibility study has seen for it.

With new convention centers costing more than $350 million, the improvements to the convention center – even with a connecting structure to the existing convention center – would be a bargain. The Pyramid footprint is 17 acres, offering plenty of area for the imaginative, eye-catching connection that includes a monorail or trolley.

Three Options

Best of all, the $65 million construction cost of the bargain basement arena was paid largely from property taxes, and if The Pyramid becomes part of the convention center, its renovations could be funded from the city and county hotel-motel taxes.

This proposal would continue public use of The Pyramid, rather than it being used to put millions of dollars into the coffers of a big box retailer.

We’ve written before that we think there’s merit to demolishing The Pyramid, but it’s obvious that the idea of eliminating vacant arenas is anathema to our public officials. In lieu of demolition, we should consider how The Pyramid could become the answer to our serious convention center needs and add it to the options that now seem to be limited to a theme park or a sporting goods retailer.

One thing is certain: with this proposal, Memphis would have a signature building anchoring a convention center complex unmatched by any city.


Anonymous said...

Sign me up!

amie said...

Sounds good to me! Practical solution to two separate problems... amazing.

DaGreek said...

How much?

Anonymous said...

We would have said "lipstick on a corpse".

What's with our Mayor? Why does he have to propose multi-million dollar projects every year and then leave the idea hanging out in the wind? It makes him look like he's not doing anything to advance the city in a comprehensive manner, and we get more depressed.

Joe said...

Great idea. It's not as "exciting" as a giant bait shop or an amusement park, but it really would serve a huge need for more convention space.

It wouldn't be the largest convention center in the country, but it'd definitely be one of the most impressive.

Michael Roy Hollihan said...

Damn but you think big. This idea needs exploring. Maybe there's a place for parts of the Ericson proposal in this?

Midtowner said...

I've always wondered why if the Wonders series could be held there why it couldn't serve conventions too.

I'm not opposed to the idea. Get a study on the costs and go from there.

bob said...

One word: COGIC.

Five words, really. But all you need to know about what's going to happen.

Anonymous said...

In most everything I do, I try to recycle and reuse things to their potential. This idea of connecting the Pyramid with the existing Convention Center is excellent! John Vergos recently wrote an excellent Letter to Editor in "The Commercial Appeal" that stated the same. Why don't we take care of what the City has and think creatively before we start thinking about tearing down and building new? The Pyramid is unique to Memphis and needs to be saved for better use than Bass Pro or an amusement park. Go for it you people who have the leverage to make it happen!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Interesting idea. Some good points but I would question just how area is really there versus what is really needed. I think an even better idea might be to use the pyramid as part of a new, expanded convention center on that site. Convert the existing convention center into big box retail or perhaps a hotel/ entertainment complex. Link to the new convention center down on the river. 'Silk purse out of a sow's ear' since you like that sorta thing.