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The World's Biggest Man Cave

A "no lose" deal for Bass Pro and The Pyramid?

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In indoor cypress swamp with alligators, fish, ducks, alligator gar, and a kayak run. A mezzanine with a fishing platform, fly-fishing shop, boat service, arcade, snake pit, fire pit, and dining deck. A plaza with more fishing, an aviary, ammo and camo, archery, and guns, guns, and more guns. The bass boat of your dreams. A harbor where you can take that baby out for a test drive.

This is no ordinary super-store. It is more like the world's biggest man cave.

That's essentially what Bass Pro Shops proposes to do with the Pyramid. Outdoors, there will be boat demonstrations on the Wolf River harbor, fish sculptures, Bass Pro-themed signs, and landscaping on Bass Pro Boulevard leading to the main entrance. The view looking south will be unobstructed by Lone Star cement company's silos and the big "Memphis" sign on top of them. There will be an unbroken connection with the Tennessee Welcome Center, Jefferson Davis Park, the cobblestones, Mud Island River Park, Beale Street Landing, the South Bluff, and the southern bridges.

East of the Pyramid will be a hotel and six square blocks of new retail stores and parking lots, connecting Bass Pro and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

The area is called the Pinch District, as in "pinch gut," in reference to its humble Irish origins and long-ago Jewish ethnicity, but the last vestige of that, a deli called Abraham's, closed 25 years ago.

The trolley line splits the Pinch, with a MATA bus station on one flank and a stack of interstate ramps that would do justice to Los Angeles on another. A reconfigured ramp off westbound Interstate 40 at Third Street will go straight to Front Street instead of bending south under the interstate. Ground zero for the new shopping area is now a motley collection of surface parking lots, empty buildings, going concerns, including T.J. Mulligan's and the Carriage Company, a corrugated metal bus barn, a tattoo parlor that used to be a lesbian bar, and — don't tell Memphis Heritage — a former synagogue built in 1927 with a star of David still visible on the exterior and targeted for demolition.

Most of the Pinch is to be replaced by a stylish collection of two-story brick buildings housing restaurants and retail shops that complement Bass Pro without competing with it. The cost of building it will be borne by the developer, Poag and McEwen Company, not the city. The $20 million budgeted for the Pinch District is for infrastructure, including a pair of four-story parking garages on Third Street, across from St. Jude. Another bond issue for the new Pinch commercial buildings, also funded by a rebate of sales taxes, is likely to come next year if the first bond issue goes through as expected.

The vision is displayed in a package of colorful renderings Bass Pro and the city have developed for what has been called the biggest and most important project in Memphis. The contrast between "now" and "then" if all goes according to plan is impressive.

"Success in public/private partnerships is often defined as 'win-win,' however, with the Pyramid/Pinch Plan, it's more accurately a 'no lose' proposition," according to a city handout accompanying the financing summary.

Bass Pro Shops has not put a dollar figure on its own investment, and nothing tangible has happened since the lease was signed in August. If the City Council approves the $111 million bond issue on November 23rd, construction is expected to take two years. When the lease was signed, Bass Pro president James Hagale held out hope that the store might open in late 2011, but late 2012 or early 2013 now seems more likely, given the five years it has taken to get to this point.

Property acquisition could be difficult. Owners of 34 properties started getting letters of interest several weeks ago. Now that the cat is out of the bag, owners are talking to each other about organizing to get much more in sales negotiations than the total of $7 million the city has budgeted as its "initial offer" based on tax assessments.

One large parcel is directly across from the Pyramid on Front Street. Owner Buddy Barnett of Barnett General Contractors assembled the land for an investor group and envisions it as a future hotel site and told the Flyer last week he believes it is worth much more than the $289,500 tax appraisal. The owner of another targeted property, attorney Steffen Schreiner, said he plans on staying where he is for another 15 years.

In a controversial 5-4 decision in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kelo v. City of New London that eminent domain can be used to take private property for the benefit of another private entity for the sake of economic development. The city of Memphis, which will retain ownership of the Pyramid, hopes to acquire the property in the Pinch District via negotiation without resorting to eminent domain.

When AutoZone Park and the Downtown Elementary School next to it were built 10 years ago, a commercial real estate firm quietly assembled property without tipping its hand. Owners who wanted to stay were confronted with a choice of negotiating to get a little more than the city's offer or possibly getting less if the city invoked its power of eminent domain. Architect Rusty Taylor had been at his office at Fourth and Court since 1966 when he sold out for the elementary school.

"You first hear of the good things that are happening so you get psyched up, and then you get the call saying they are gathering up land, and then you lose your building and any appreciation. You get hit on the front end and the back end. It's a double whammy."

In poker parlance, Memphis is going "all in" on Bass Pro.

Everyone knew Bass Pro wouldn't come cheap. In 2005, Time magazine called Bass Pro "the hottest store in retailing." The mayor of Oklahoma City, which offered $17 million in incentives, likened a Bass Pro Shop to "having a home baseball game 365 days a year." Pearl, Mississippi, a suburb of Jackson, issued $65 million in revenue bonds for a Bass Pro Shop and a 7,000-seat baseball stadium next door. Buffalo, New York, offered $66 million in incentives to Bass Pro but was unable to complete a deal and will move ahead with a waterfront development without them.

In Memphis, the first estimate of public funding was $30 million, with Bass Pro investing $75 million. Then it became $75 million altogether. When the City Council approved the lease in August, the resolution said "allocate an amount up to and including $63 million to the Pyramid and Pinch District redevelopment." The latest amount is $93 million, plus another $18 million in financing costs and $9.5 million to bolster the city's debt service fund.

The bonds will be secured by downtown tourism zone revenue that the city says will exceed $24 million annually. Once the final bond documents are prepared, there will be a "roadshow" to pitch them to investors. If the deal isn't completed this year, the cost of the financing goes up by about $10 million.

It won't be possible to pound the details of the financing until the prospectus is ready in a week or two. But this is a different kind of deal in a downtown that has bet big on magic bullets such as Mud Island River Park, the trolley, AutoZone Park, FedExForum, the Pyramid, and Beale Street Landing.

With Bass Pro, the city is using sales taxes via Tourism Development Zone funds for the benefit of a privately owned for-profit company.

Bass Pro is the world's leading outdoor retailer, with $2.7 billion in annual sales. An analysis for the city by RKG Associates Inc. predicted the Pyramid/Pinch project would draw 4 million visitors a year and create direct employment of 1,500 people, indirect employment of 215 people, annual wages of $33.4 million, construction-related employment of 1,600 people and $96 million in wages, and produce annual net sales of $169 million with net sales tax of $14.4 million.

Bass Pro will pay rent of at least $1 million a year or 2 percent of sales and 1 percent of sales of boats, recreational vehicles, and all-terrain vehicles. A total of $50 million in sales produces $1 million in rent. RKG predicts $94 million in sales.

The initial lease is for 20 years with seven five-year renewal options.

"These investments in our city's future will be made without any local dollars," according to city documents. "The revenues invested in these projects do not go to private companies. Instead, they pay for improvements that remain the property of the citizens of Memphis."

The 20-year-old Pyramid, which was closed four years ago, "becomes a magnet for the 18.5 million vehicles that drive past it every year on I-40."

The foremost champions of the project are Memphis housing and community development director Robert Lipscomb and architect Tom Marshall, a member of the Memphis City Council from 1986 to 2007. A study committee appointed by former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton chose Bass Pro as the best and most feasible reuse of the Pyramid. Mayor A C Wharton has embraced it since moving over from the county mayor's job but was not an early backer.

The phrase "no lose proposition" has rarely if ever been uttered in the same breath as the Pyramid, which was built to replace the Mid-South Coliseum for about $60 million. Even before the marriage to Bass Pro, the Pyramid attracted haters the way a dead fish draws flies. Its interior space was never developed, the luxury suites resembled concrete bunkers, and the 20,000 seats were cramped. The bullish view of Bass Pro has the support of, among others, famous fisherman Bill Dance, Ducks Unlimited, and former Mayor Dick Hackett, whose support for the Pyramid when he was mayor probably shortened his political career.

"Bass Pro could very well ultimately be the largest attractor this city has," said Hackett, who is now head of the Children's Museum of Memphis and has no personal connection to the project. "I like to hunt and fish, and this whole region is full of people like me. I think the payback will be substantial."

The former mayor, known for his personal and municipal thriftiness, is not scared by the financial projections.

"You have to buy this type of attraction," he said. "None of that stuff comes free anymore. Are you going to just let it sit there vacant? You just can't do that. The location is fabulous. I think it's a win-win."

Some eggs will have to be broken to make this omelet. The observation deck beneath the glass apex could be one casualty, spectacular though it is. The outdoor inclinator that was supposed to carry visitors to the deck was built but never installed when developer Sidney Shlenker's plans fell apart. Making the observation deck accessible would mean putting in an elevator at the city's expense.

There will also be Bass Pro signs on the exterior. To some critics, this diminishes the Pyramid as a civic icon. It would be "tantamount to writing Hicksville, USA, in 310-foot letters" said the Smart City Memphis blog in 2008.

Another hidden cost will be the perpetuation of the "big idea" investment aimed at attracting tourists. So-called smart-growth projects like the Shelby Farms Greenline and Greenbelt Park on Mud Island are relatively inexpensive and aimed at improving the daily lives of Memphis residents.

By their nature, incentives attract more big ideas. To facilitate them, downtown has the Center City Commission, Riverfront Development Corporation, and Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau and tax incentives and subsidies unavailable to other parts of Memphis. Another developer recently got $15 million in tax-freeze savings and $11.5 million in Recovery Zone bonds for a $69 million luxury hotel at Fourth and Linden south of Beale Street.

Already, it seems, there are signs of Bass Pro envy.

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