Few issues have divided sentiment on the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission more than that of the proposed leasing of the Pyramid to Bass Pro Shop. In general, officials of the city, which shares ownership rights to the building with the county and owns
outright the surrounding property, tend to see Bass Pro as the only extant suitor for the facility, which city and county taxpayers are still paying for and which continues to soak up stout maintenance costs even while standing idle. The building's potential uses are strictly limited by a contract with the NBA's Grizzlies that grants first dibs to the FedExForum for all athletic and entertainment activities.
The prime movers for the turnover of the dormant facility to the giant outdoors-oriented chain have always been city-side, with Robert Lipscomb, a longtime ally of Mayor Willie Herenton and the head of the city's arena reuse committee, leading the charge. Even on the commission, where several proposed agreements relating to Bass Pro (including the sale of the county's ownership share to the city) were consistently blocked until this week, the main proponent for an understanding favorable to the chain has consistently and vociferously been Sidney Chism, another Herenton intimate.
Shelby County mayor A C Wharton has, however, also been on board for an agreement with Bass Pro. The main county opposition has come from a de facto caucus of commissioners who transcend the normal partisan dividing lines. The opponents of a deal have nursed, together or singly, a variety of objections — that a city landmark should not be assigned to what some have called a glorified "bait shop"; that Bass Pro has offered insufficient financial safeguards and vague development proposals; and — something that has been spoken to only obliquely in discussions on the commission — that the deal does not pass "the smell test," that somehow the "fix was in" on arrangements with Bass Pro.
As it happened, the two commissioners who uttered those last two caveats were on the prevailing side of the 9-3 commission vote Monday that finally authorized Bass Pro to pursue a development deal with the city and county. And that's as good a sign as any that progress (if that's the right word) has been made more out of fatigue and exasperation over the years of wrangling than because of anybody's belief that anything is likely to come to fruition. Indeed, commissioners on both sides of Monday's vote were predicting afterward that a combination of a bad economy and Bass Pro's foot-dragging attitude made consummation of a completed development unlikely.
In any case, it's now up to Bass Pro — which is obligated to a $35,000 monthly rental during the next year (and very little else) — to put up or shut up. Its critics have accused the chain of dilatory tactics in negotiations with other cities and with floating sham proposals for the sake of brand advertising. There is an easy way to counter that contention now that official resistance on the part of local government is no more. All the chain has to do, having been granted a year for "feasibility" studies, is put something real on the table. If, 12 months from now, Bass Pro hasn't done so, that should be the end of it, and the city and county will just have to start over in looking for a tenant.