"Bass Pro has had enough time," said Commissioner Joyce Avery. "Either they make their decision or let's go with something else."
"Something else" could be the Ericson Group's proposal for a $250 million indoor amusement park. The plan includes a "Disney-esque" theme park, a shopping mall at the foot of The Pyramid, improvements to Mud Island, and a 300- to 400-room hotel. Under the proposal, which would rival the Graceland expansion, Ericson would buy the property, pay off The Pyramid's existing debt, and do so without public tax dollars.
"I'd like to see it judged on its own merits," said Memphian Greg Ericson, "but I think it's a superior project to what's out there."
In its ongoing flirtation with Memphis, Bass Pro has signed three letters of intent with city and county government, the latest of which expires January 31st. This week, the commission asked Mayor A C Wharton not to sign any additional letters of intent with Bass Pro.
"We've been told repeatedly that a deal was just around the corner with Bass Pro," said Commissioner Steve Mulroy. "I think an amusement park is a better use for the public than a glorified bait shop."
Though the letters of intent were both non-exclusive and non-binding, some commissioners felt the conversation with Ericson was a bit premature or that they were somehow cheating on Bass Pro. But after three years, it's hard to imagine when the right time for this conversation might be.
Ericson not only went through the initial Pyramid re-use committee process several years ago; the committee recommended his proposal in its final report.
After a meeting with Willie Herenton, in which the mayor suggested Ericson buy the land, he included that in his proposal. The last time Ericson met with the County Commission, they wanted to know if he could actually get financing for an indoor theme park, even though he didn't have a letter of intent. When he came back last week, he had a team of moneymen with him.
"We don't need three-and-a-half years to go through the letter of intent phase," Ericson said. "If we started today, we could have everything funded and signed one month from today."
The administration said it would study Ericson's financing and present a report to the commission before the end of January.
On the face of its proposal, I'm not for or against Bass Pro. But I get the sense that the company is just — if you'll excuse the paraphrase — not that into us. And when you compare that to the boy next door who has been persistently pursuing The Pyramid, it's all the more apparent.
Besides Ericson's financial proposal, which greatly outscopes Bass Pro, and all the pretty pictures of roller coasters, a few things turned my head.
Outside of the initial $250 million investment, the Ericson group would spend $5 million a year on marketing the amusement park to the 85 million people within a day's drive of Memphis. That's New Orleans, Atlanta, Dallas, and even Chicago.
By comparison, there are already Bass Pro stores in Atlanta, Dallas, and Chicago and one planned for Denham Springs, Louisiana, outside of Baton Rouge. Heck, there's already a Bass Pro located here.
As part of the retail-space component in its plan, Ericson could also easily incorporate Bass Pro. "The beauty of our proposal is that there is plenty of room for both of us," Ericson said.
I think the community at large has been more than patient and fair to Bass Pro. At the commission's committee meeting, there was some discussion about whether the county would need to issue a request for proposals (RFP). Ultimately, it was decided it would not, but not before Ericson reminded commissioners his company already did that.
"We already went through an RFP process," Ericson said. "Bass Pro never did."
Just having another suitor for The Pyramid is good news. In July, Memphis chief financial officer Robert Lipscomb said the city didn't have any leverage because no one else was interested. If this gets a proposal out of Bass Pro — and it's the best proposal for The Pyramid — then I say, Cheers, here's to a long and happy life together.
Perhaps Mulroy put it best: "We have another option," he said. "It would be foolish of us if we didn't consider it."