Rating the Memphis "Transformative" Deals

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City officials are betting that the Bass Pro Pyramid will be a transformative deal for downtown and Memphis tourist attractions in general. I hope they're right. I like shopping at Bass Pro Shops and I think it's a good fit for Memphis (throw in Shelby Farms, a bike lane over the river, the zoo, Graceland, Beale Street, and maybe a steamboat company at Beale Street Landing) that will get some attention from people looking for an unusual and un-Nashville experience.

Catalyst, game-changer, kick-starter, transformer — I've seen all these words tossed around, and used them myself, to describe big deals in Memphis over the last 30 years. Cost aside, and this one didn't come cheap, what makes a deal transformative? I would say longevity, positive impact beyond the footprint of the project itself, continuous upside, and love, as in "I love taking people to so-and-so."

Here's how I would rate the T-factor of high-profile projects I've seen come to be since 1980.

Highest Level

The Peabody. Purchased by an Alabama developer for $2 million in 1974, the hotel closed in 1975. Later that year, Jack Belz, Philip Belz, and Edward Hanover bought it at auction for $540,000. Downtown was in the pits, and there was talk of tearing it down for a parking lot. Instead, the new owners lovingly refurbished it, and the Peabody reopened on September 1, 1981. It has been a classy Memphis landmark ever since. The Peabody Place shopping mall didn't work, but the offices on Main Street and the restaurants along Second Street are legitimate spinoffs, and the publicity is priceless.

FedEx Forum. No NBA team without it. It put our biggest corporate name on one of our biggest downtown buildings. Replaced a parking lot and The Pyramid, making sure not to repeat its mistakes. And maybe some day soon the Grizzlies will win an NBA championship and the Tigers will earn a championship banner they can hang with pride. From a real estate perspective, the lack of development south of the arena has been disappointing.

HarborTown and Mud Island residential. Mud Island went from practically zero residents to more than 5,000 of them in 20 years. There is not another Mississippi riverfront planned community like it. Huge assist from the Auction Avenue (A.W. Willis) Bridge.

St. Jude Hospital/ALSAC expansion. This one almost got away in 1985 when hospital officials announced plans to move to St. Louis. Memphis political and business leaders, along with then Governor Lamar Alexander, made a sales pitch to keep that from happening. Try to imagine downtown Memphis from Front Street to Danny Thomas without it.

Middle level

AutoZone Park. Turned a sleazy, blighted part of downtown across from The Peabody into a showcase. Bigger than a ballpark, with offices, a parking garage, elementary school, and apartments. Attendance declined after the newness wore off, and the other side of Union Avenue hasn't come around.

Beale Street Historic District. The biggest tourist attraction in Memphis in terms of numbers, and source of the largest amount of visitor spending. There was nothing there but shells of old buildings and A. Schwab's in 1980 when redevelopment began. Struggles with vacancies and financial accounting.

Memphis Zoo. Continually reinvents itself and draws about a million visitors a year. But speaking as a nearby resident, its neighbor, Rhodes College, is a more important Midtown anchor.

Soulsville USA. The Stax museum is off the tourism beaten path, but the charter school looks like a future home run. The retail center is mostly vacant.

Low level

Mud Island River Park. A big deal when it opened 30 years ago, after years of construction delays and cost overruns. Replaced an old island airstrip at downtown's front door. But where's the love? And the wow? Perceived as hard to get to, even though that is no longer true, and a "so now I've seen it" mentality. Restaurants couldn't make it, and park is closed nearly half the year. And next year it will have more competition from Beale Street Landing.

Too early to tell

Shelby Farms has 4,000 acres and world-class ambitions.
The Harahan Project to add a bike lane across the Mississippi River.
Tiger Lane opened at the start of last year's football season, but a tailgating area can't be a game-changer without a team that, say, 35,000 pay to see each home game. The fairgrounds redevelopment, except for the Kroc Center, looks to be years away.

What I left out

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