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Pyramid Scheme

A Baptist church is offering $12 million for the aging arena. Should we take it?



Memphis' Pyramid Arena — like its ancestors in Egypt — seems destined to sit empty and slowly rot away.

About a month ago, Cummings Street Missionary Baptist Church decided to put in a $12 million bid for the aging, and empty, former arena.

"We've outgrown all the space we have," says church pastor Gary Faulkner. "On Sundays, we have four different services in three different places, so we're looking at finding one roof that we can all be under together."

The church has felt constrained by space for some time now. When they moved to their current home in Whitehaven five years ago, they doubled their seating capacity.

"We thought we had some growing time," Faulkner says. "The first Sunday we were there, we were filled to capacity."

Thus the satellite services in Cordova and East Memphis for at least part of the church's 5,000-member congregation. But with the Pyramid's more than 20,000 seats, the church thinks the facility would be an easy fit.

But city officials aren't so sure.

Faulkner says he's been thinking about the Pyramid ever since the Grizzlies moved to FedExForum, but it wasn't until a month ago, when he heard a familiar refrain about options, that he decided to submit a letter of intent.

"I was listening to the news, and someone said we didn't have any other options other than Bass Pro," Faulkner says. "Instead of griping and complaining about what's not happening at the Pyramid, I decided to do something about it."

Bass Pro has been at the heart of Pyramid reuse negotiations since a press conference in early 2006. Though the outdoors retailer has signed several letters of intent, a deal has not been finalized. The Pyramid was once listed on Bass Pro's website as the location of a future store, but it has since been removed from that list.

The current story is that Bass Pro is still doing feasibility studies.

An effort by the Ericson Group to turn the Pyramid into an indoor theme park fell apart earlier this spring. The group became frustrated with the lack of progress and the reuse effort's seemingly unwavering attachment to Bass Pro.

Even this latest bid to take the Pyramid — and its annual $600,000 maintenance costs — off taxpayer hands doesn't seem to be getting a serious look.

Robert Lipscomb, the city's chief financial officer and the head of the Pyramid reuse effort, has reportedly cast doubt on the church's offer, saying it wouldn't provide the economic impact to the area that Bass Pro would and that the church might not be able to afford the Pyramid's utility bill.

That may be true, but like any option, it's worth checking out before discarding the idea.

"We're looking at more than a place to worship," says Faulkner. "Our vision for the Pyramid is bigger than just a place for prayer, praise, and preaching. It's bigger than just Sunday morning.

"If that's what anyone is thinking, they have no idea what we have in mind."

He says the church would use the arena as its worship center but would also hope to leverage the surrounding area as an economic incubator, with restaurants and retail that would be open seven days a week.

I'll be honest — I don't know how, or if, the church's retail component would work. But I'm not even sure that's the most important question.

I mean, how much economic impact is the area getting right now, waiting for Bass Pro to make a move one way or the other? Actually, let me rephrase that: How much positive economic impact is the area getting right now?

When the Pyramid reuse committee came out with their recommendations for the building in 2005, their preferred use for the building was an indoor theme park with a major destination retailer. A number of other ideas were also thrown around, including turning it into a church or building an aquarium.

And yet, when Ericson proposed an indoor theme park, his financial backing was called into question. When Cummings Street proposed a church, their finances also were called into question.

I'm not saying we should make a hasty decision, but why not give these ideas the benefit of the doubt?

Frankly, I'm not sure that the best use of the building in 2005 is the best use of the building now. Because of the economy, retail in general is in a slump. And when the mortgage crisis hits property tax revenue, we might find ourselves needing to unload unnecessary debt.

"Right now, the Pyramid is empty and it's been empty for years," Faulkner says. "I'm giving you another option."

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