The Shelby County Commission seemingly dealt a death blow last Wednesday to a proposal for converting The Pyramid into a casino. But did it? In all likelihood, the casino scenario, first advanced by Commissioner John Willingham, will surface for another vote in mid-April that could well reverse the verdict of Wednesday's special session.
That session was made necessary by an objection at last week's regular Monday commission meeting by Commissioner Marilyn Loeffel that the proposal had not been properly added to the body's agenda at an earlier committee meeting.
That created enough confusion that commissioners agreed to defer a vote on the matter until the specially called session two days later. And Loeffel, by her own account as well as Willingham's, used the extra time to organize a pressure campaign on commissioners to reject the proposal.
"I'll give her her due. She's very powerful in terms of her constituency," said Willingham after two casino-related votes had fallen short by two votes at the Wednesday meeting. He identified that constituency as one symbolized by -- but not limited to -- the Bellevue Baptist Church congregation and that church's pastor, the Rev. Adrian Rogers. Willingham added that pressure -- presumably independent of Loeffel -- had also come from sources close to Tunica gambling interests.
Loeffel acknowledged that she made efforts to see that her fellow commissioners heard from citizens objecting to votes that would have authorized the Tennessee General Assembly to pass casino-friendly legislation. One bill would begin a constitutional-amendment process legalizing a casino at the single site of The Pyramid. Another would legalize "games of skill" throughout the state.
"It was a combination of hard work and God dust," a beaming Loeffel said of the outcome, which saw the proposals turned back by votes of 5-7-1 (Cleo Kirk abstaining in the constitutional-amendment vote) and 5-8.
Voting no on both votes were Commissioners Linda Rendtorff, Walter Bailey, Joyce Avery, David Lillard, Tom Moss, Bruce Thompson, and Chairwoman Loeffel. Yes votes came from Willingham, Julian Bolton, Deidre Malone, Michael Hooks, and Joe Ford.
The votes almost didn't come off. After the commission had unanimously approved the other proposal on last Wednesday's special agenda for a reorganization of county school board district lines, Moss moved to defer action on the casino votes until the commission's regular meeting of April 12th. He was seconded by Lillard.
For a while, that seemed to be that, but Willingham pressed for a roll-call vote on the deferral, which was defeated.
After the two nay votes on the casino proposal, Thompson pointedly crossed over to Willingham's side of the commission table, whispered in his ear, and shook his hand -- an action inviting speculation from Loeffel and others that a move to reconsider the votes might be in the offing for April 12th.
If it did, the most likely converts would be Thompson and Kirk -- the former of whom did acknowledge later the eloquence of remarks made Monday by Hooks to the effect that Memphis and Shelby County "already" had casino gambling -- meaning the complex in nearby Tunica -- without benefiting from accompanying tax revenues.
Hooks also noted that the county's taxpayers were still on the line for $32 million worth of outstanding bonds and additional annual maintenance costs for The Pyramid, which would shortly "go dark" now that the University of Memphis basketball Tigers have completed plans to move to the new FedExForum.
"We've got a bone, but we don't even have a dog in the yard," Willingham said about nonexistent prospects for occupancy of The Pyramid, other than his proposal, in tandem with the Lakes Corporation of Minnesota, for developing it as a casino/hotel complex.
Among what seems to be a growing number of prominent Memphians advocating consideration of the idea is Convention & Visitors Bureau head Kevin Kane, who volunteered favorable testimony to a meeting of Willingham's Tourism and Public Works committee last week.
Opponents of a casino at The Pyramid and some media sources cite Governor Phil Bredesen as also being opposed to the idea, but the governor has debunked that notion, telling local officials who have contacted him, as well as the Flyer, that while he is "not at all sure" that the idea is good for Memphis and Shelby County, he intends to be responsive to local business, political, and civic leaders on the point.