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[City Beat] First Impressions

Fans with memories of other openings like FedExForum better.

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Between them, Kevin Kane, Dave Woloshin, John Elkington, and Rick Spell have witnessed hundreds of sporting events and concerts -- in Memphis and in other cities. That's part of what they do as spokesmen for, in order, Memphis tourism, Memphis Tigers football and basketball, Beale Street, and the Tigers' booster club.

They've seen smash hits and duds and everything in between, including the 1983 opening of Beale Street and the 1991 opening of The Pyramid. Their jobs are secure and not dependent on the success of the Grizzlies or FedExForum. So it's encouraging for the future of Memphis that each of them sees generally good things ahead for FedExForum, which opened last week to the media, moguls, and the masses.

"All the mistakes that were made at The Pyramid have been corrected on this one," said Kane, head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The luxuries and fan-friendly stuff that were cut out of The Pyramid have not been shortchanged at FedExForum."

He was at The Pyramid's grand opening for a concert by the Judds.

"The bathrooms flooded, and the acoustics were awful," he recalled. "That was the public's first experience with their new building, and I witnessed the whole thing. Within 30 days of the opening, it had a reputation as the worst-sounding shed in the music business."

He expects FedExForum to enjoy a honeymoon that should last three or four years and make it as much of a defining feature for Memphis as the Superdome once was for New Orleans.

"My only concern is how all that traffic is going to work together in a four-block area on a busy weekend for Beale Street when there is a sold-out event at FedExForum and something else at The Orpheum," he said. "With The Pyramid you had people spread out."

He would like to see The Pyramid mothballed if necessary but not torn down.

"I still say The Pyramid is to Memphis what the Gateway Arch is to St. Louis, in a city where we basically have a pretty nondescript skyline," he said.

Woloshin, who's also a host of a sports-talk show for WMC, was at The Pyramid in a tuxedo for the opening game in 1991, when Memphis lost to DePaul on a controversial call in the last minute.

"A facility does create buzz," he said. "But I don't think The Pyramid was a negative for the University of Memphis by any means. For fans, though, it was never finished and was more spartan than they thought it would be. But on the outside The Pyramid is a better-looking building than FedExForum and a landmark."

As he toured the new building, Woloshin was impressed by the fancy tile floors, the copper highlights and polished wood in the restaurants, the video scoreboard, and the luxury suites. And he thinks the lower ceiling will make FedExForum louder than The Pyramid, where the ceiling is nearly 300 feet above the floor.

"You got a palace," he said. "Very few things in life that have incredible expectations ever live up to them. This building, in my mind, surpasses them."

Spell, past president of the Tiger Club board of directors and season-ticket holder for several years, agrees.

"It's the best basketball arena I've ever been in," he said. "You can just sense how close to the court everyone is. Everybody with U of M is worried about their seats, but there are three seating bowls, and the two lower bowls are better than the lowest bowl in The Pyramid."

His only concern is that concession prices could drive fans away.

Elkington, the developer of Beale Street, was an early proponent of the new arena's location south of Beale, instead of on Union Avenue. Beale Street tenants face higher maintenance fees for street upkeep and security, but some are already seeing a boost in business. Elkington said Wet Willie's did $75,000 in business last weekend.

"It's been a long and winding road, but this has really worked out great, and this arena makes it better," he said.

When the media toured FedExForum last week, a Grizzlies executive used the expression "price-insensitive" to describe the patrons of the premium seats and restaurants. As a price-sensitive casual fan and one of The Pyramid's few defenders, FedExForum seems to me to be built with an eye on Tunica as much as that red-headed stepchild on Front Street. The lavishness, extravagance, $250 million price tag, and glitz are exactly the point. Food is an attraction, albeit a lot more expensive than the subsidized casino buffets. Stores, video screens, and restaurants are supposed to make fans part of an interactive "experience" instead of passive spectators. There's enough luxury to make the rich feel like they're, well, rich.

Facing a future of losing at least $300 million a year in entertainment spending to Tunica, Memphis finally will compete with the casinos on their terms.

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