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Pyramid Dreams

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What gives with our most prominent riverfront landmark, The Pyramid? After years of an unconsummated courtship with Bass Pro Shop, Memphians are beginning to wonder if the facility isn't assuming the function of its ancient Egyptian model, i.e., becoming a tomb. Quite literally, the hopes and ambitions of a previous generation of city and county officials are interred there, along with not much else.

As reported recently in the Flyer ("Taking the Bait," August 2nd issue), city finance officer Robert Lipscomb has lately been offering assurances that Bass Pro Shop, giant fish logo and all, is still on the line. But there are skeptics. One such is city councilman Myron Lowery, who quotes Lipscomb, who doubles as Memphis' chief redevelopment official, as counseling continued patience this way: "Myron, stay with me. They're coming to the city."

But as the Flyer's Mary Cashiola noted in the above-referenced article, the giant outdoors retailer is no longer featuring Memphis on its Web site as a "future location."

The fact is, representatives of Bass Pro did come to the city for additional talks within the last month, Lowery confides — with the result so far unreported. Meanwhile, the councilman no doubt speaks for an increasing number of his fellow citizens when he says, "I don't think Robert did the right thing by selecting Bass Pro and giving them open range. We should have maintained more options."

Some of those additional options — a branch of the Smithsonian, an aquarium facility, a casino, a St. Jude expansion — are familiar parts of the civic conversation. But that's all they've amounted to so far — so much talk.

But now, according to Memphis lawyer John Farris, who has been involved in his share of high-profile deals, a substantial alternative buyer may be closer than anyone knew to acquiring the facility (and relieving Memphis and Shelby County of $10 million in indebtedness and responsibility for half a million in annual maintenance costs). "I actually thought over the weekend that we were close to getting it set," Farris said on Tuesday.

Farris said his client has no particular use in mind for The Pyramid but sees it as "a good investment" in its own right. In other words, this prospective buyer would happily put himself into the same predicament — deciding what to do with the giant facility — that the city and county now have been burdened with all by themselves.

If this circumstance seems uncannily like the situation that MLGW finds itself in with regard to its languishing Networx fiber-optics initiative — about to be disposed of in a fire sale to a private buyer — that's probably because there are such analogies to be made.

Like governmental jurisdictions in the rest of the nation, the public agencies and departments of Memphis and Shelby County are still figuring out not only how to co-exist with entrepreneurs in an age of public/private partnerships but how to deal — with or without such private-sector associates — with issues such as The Pyramid and Networx that require both short- and long-range planning.

That in either instance there are entrepreneurs who believe that there is profit to be had in these presumed white elephants is both cause for reassurance and reason for reproach. In both cases, what do these potential buyers know that our local officials don't — and possibly should have?

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