Lunker or Clunker?

Bass Pro Shops preaches to the choir and several empty seats.

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Bass Pro Shops president Jim Hagale started talking about the dangers of over-expansion and brands gone bad. I thought, uh-oh, where's he going with this?

He mentioned Krispy Kreme Donuts and Planet Hollywood, but he could just as easily have added Tower Records, Peabody Place, Pat O'Brien's, or Bennigan's. Or Hard Rock Café — the Bass Pro Shops of 1988 — when the Pyramid was going to be the coolest arena on the planet. Hard Rock, once a hot publicly traded stock and a must-have T-shirt, is now just another restaurant on Beale Street.

Hagale didn't go there. He was in Memphis Monday to announce a development agreement for the Bass Pro Pyramid. The presentations to the City Council and County Commission by Hagale and the city's Pyramid point man, Robert Lipscomb, were an earnest attempt to put lipstick on a white elephant.

"An Engine for Commerce, Conservation, Environmental Education, and Tourism," as the thick handout says. World peace will apparently have to wait, but look for ammo and camo and rods and reels over in aisle one.

The timing was horrible and the pitch is shopworn after three years, with at least three more years before a grand opening. Working Memphians are struggling to pay their mortgages and bills, not splurging on bass boats. The biggest threat to the Bass Pro Pyramid isn't an earthquake, it's a recession. "Creative financing," also known as getting something for nothing, is what got us into this mess. Only five council members showed up; several others are in Denver for the Democratic National Convention. Hagale and Lipscomb were preaching to the choir and a bunch of empty chairs.

The council's approval isn't needed at this point anyway, and the county's $5 million debt share of the Pyramid is likely to be bought out by the city, simplifying things down the road. This is a Willie Herenton-Lipscomb deal. The mayor, who is neither a hunter nor fisherman, said it was a great day, one "the citizens of Memphis have been waiting 20 years for." The Bass Pro Pyramid will be a 365-days-a-year attraction. The bond lawyers, architects, developers, financiers, professional downtowners, and county government expatriates enlisted to speak for the project applauded. But by the time they were supposed to give their endorsements the chamber was nearly empty, and the speeches were scrapped.

Hagale thanked Lipscomb, "who took most of the arrows for me." He apologized for delays, but said "there has never been a point where Bass Pro became disinterested in the Pyramid project." Nor, it seems, has there been a point yet where Bass Pro became totally committed to it. Hagale showed a video that emphasized Bass Pro's affinity with NASCAR and featured good old boys in camouflage and former President Jimmy Carter, looking younger and unpresidential, as a Bass Pro pitchman. Bass Pro loves the synergy with Ducks Unlimited, FedEx shipping, pro fisherman Bill Dance, and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. But Hagale didn't say why the Pyramid, a challenge since the day it opened, makes sense for a company that prides itself on doing things its own way in places like Springfield, Missouri and Pearl, Mississippi.

The agreement gives Bass Pro another year to do studies and make plans while paying $35,000 a month. If it's a go, construction of a store, aquarium, hotel, and restaurants would take two more years. The cost to the city and county: $30 million, plus the remaining $9.9 million of debt on the Pyramid. Various experts explained that the $30 million would not come out of property taxes or general fund revenues, which would be political suicide. The found money is something called new market tax credits and the Tourism Development Zone taxes that also financed FedEx Forum and the convention center. The financing depends on "tourism" dollars and hotel taxes to produce a surplus beyond the current tax take, which is rebated by the state.

Hagale said he is "very disappointed when we are designated as a big-box retailer." That would be one of the kinder depictions. Local know-nothings seem to prefer "bait shop" or "gun store," which is as inaccurate as the hype. Bass Pro Shops is nothing more or less than the best deal out there for a downtown whose future is entertainment and conventions. It would be tantamount to landing a medium-sized company headquarters. A $30 million ante — if that's really the cap — is appropriate for a company that would employ 600 people and promises to be an exemplary corporate citizen.

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