Memphis, like many post-industrial cities, has faced the challenges of emptied-out inner-city neighborhoods and business districts.
This happened in a Memphis area called The Pinch, north of downtown and near the Mississippi River. Local lore says the name described the pinched guts of malnourished Iris immigrants who fled the potato famine of the mid 19th century. The Irish were joined by Jews, Italians, Russians and Greeks.
In the 20th century, many of the immigrants and their children moved farther east, and the small stores and businesses that served them closed or followed along. A new population, African American and mostly poor, settled in The Pinch. The formerly busy commercial district never recovered, and Memphis was left with a bald spot that needed more redevelopment than just housing projects.
This is the story of how city tried to revitalize the area.
In 1989, ground was broken on what was called the Memphis Pyramid. The event was celebrated with a great big outdoor party. City leaders had approved a plan to build a civic icon that would attract tourists and herald the turnaround of forward-looking Memphis.
It is easy to see why the pyramid shape was chosen. It drew on historic themes, including pyramid-shaped Chickasaw burial mounds and the pyramids of Giza, located near the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis, from which Memphis, Tenn., took its name.
Earlier that same year, a smaller glass pyramid designed by I.M. Pei opened in the central courtyard of the Louvre in Paris and was widely hailed as a brilliant contemporary bit of work.
And, too, Memphians may have noticed that the St. Louis Gateway Arch, 300 miles north along the Mississippi River, had become a prominent local symbol recognized well beyond the boundaries of Missouri.
The construction cost of the Pyramid, $65 million, was shared by the city and Shelby County, which sold bonds to be paid off over 30 years by tax revenues generated by the Pyramid and related developments.
Inside the Pyramid was a 20,000-seat arena, perfect for college basketball games and tournaments, as well as other major sports events and big musical concerts.
During the construction period, a Pyramid operator was hired by the city and tasked also with developing other projects in the empty commercial area. He promised to bring in restaurants, museums and various activities. The Pyramid was to anchor a destination entertainment area that would attract tourists from around the country and perhaps even the world.
After setting the man to work, the city and county expanded his mandate and asked him to establish additional entertainment venues on nearby Mud Island, not far from Memphis’ Mississippi shore.
In 1991, the Pyramid opened in an inauspicious way. During its debut event, a concert, its bathrooms flooded and the water spread far enough to force the musicians off the stage.
Worse, the promised ancillary developments had not been built. There was no music museum located under the stadium bleachers. There was no Hard Rock Cafe. All there was was the Pyramid surrounded by empty land and parking lots.
The operator, once named Memphis’ Man of the Year, was fired, and his company declared bankruptcy. People still argue about whether he was a charlatan or whether he had been given an unrealistically ambitious assignment.
Through the 1990s, the pyramid was used for college basketball games and concerts, but it sat by itself in the middle of an undeveloped area.
Hope was rekindled in 2001 when a National Basketball Association team, the Vancouver Grizzlies, relocated to Memphis and the Pyramid.
Unfortunately, the Pyramid’s arena did not meet NBA venue requirements, and so the city sold $250 million in bonds and built the Fed Ex Forum about a half mile away. (Federal Express, which is based in Memphis, paid a generous $92 million for the naming rights.)
In 2004, the Grizzlies and the college teams moved to the Forum, and except for occasional concerts and church convocations, the Pyramid was abandoned. Even as it sat empty, annual maintenance expenses ran to $700,000.
City leaders cast around for new uses for the Pyramid. A local congressman proposed a Mid-South satellite of the Smithsonian Museum. There was talk of an indoor theme park, of a science center, of other projects. Nothing proved out.
By 2005, it was revealed that Memphis was in talks to lease the Pyramid to Bass Pro Shops, the operator of oversized stores selling outdoor gear. Negotiations proceeded in fits and starts for years.
A general outline of terms was reached in 2010. Bass Pro and the city (the county had dropped out of Pyramid participation) agreed to a 55-year lease, which sounds a little optimistic. How many stores that opened 55 years ago are still operating today?
For its part, the city agreed to fix up the arena interior. It carted 900 truckloads of bleacher seats and other irrelevant fixtures to the dump. It corrected mechanical problems and paid for a major seismic upgrade. It built the tallest free-standing elevator in the country to the top of the Pyramid, 300 feet up, and then added a viewing platform and indoor space for a bar and restaurant.
At the time of the lease signing, the city pledged to spend $30 million on the upgrades, but a local man told me the spending was understood to be $105 million. It appears that federal grants for improvements to blighted areas may have made up the difference.
For its part, Bass Pro was reported to have spent $113 million to set up its shop. Some of the money went to rustic-looking indoor displays and company signage on the Pyramid’s sides. More was spent on restaurants and a $300-a-night hotel, also housed inside the Pyramid.
The whole process took years. At first Bass Pro aimed to open 2013. Then the date was pushed back to 2014, then late 2014. Finally the thing opened in May 2015.
The Bass Pro Shop
I never visited the old Pyramid, but I did go to the Bass Pro Shop last month. It is remarkable for the range of amusements it offers in addition to outdoor gear. There were families studying tanks of fish (many, many catfish) and juvenile alligators, as well as stuffed bears and deer. Fathers and children were practicing shooting with replica long guns at a small diorama-type range. People were standing in lines to take the $10 (round-trip!) elevator ride up to look at the view.
The merchandise included thousands of fishing reels, hundreds of Bass Pro-themed tee shirts, several displays of camouflage-colored Crocs, and paddleboards, scuba gear, fishing boats and off-road vehicles.
The restaurants seemed to be doing a nice business. I didn’t visit the hotel, but Memphians say its rooms are overpriced and mostly empty.
I am not a big outdoorsperson (although I did catch a fish once.) I picked out a tchotchke for a friend, and stood in line at the cash register as a couple from Australia paid for several groaning shopping bags full of purchases.
So maybe the Pyramid Pro Shop is a destination, just as the Pyramid was intended to be. Still, its rent, based on sales, apparently was far less than expected in its first year of operation.
But as I walked out to find my car in the parking lot, I noticed that most of the land surrounding the Pyramid still was empty.
On one end, the city has put up more affordable housing, likely to replace older housing projects that have been demolished. On the downtown side, there is a new light-rail station.
There is nothing much between these and the Pyramid.
I can imagine the enthusiasm city leaders had when they planned and built the Pyramid.
What they wanted was a lively entertainment neighborhood surrounding the building.
What they ended up, unfortunately, with is a smaller entertainment center totally enclosed within the building itself.
“(T)his should serve as a cautionary tale for what strange things can happen when political expediency and civic boosterism converge and give birth to promises that outstrip common sense.
“It is in such a cauldron that promoters of implausible ideas are treated as saviors of the city by politicians reluctant to conduct basic due diligence for fear of having to abandon the latest magic answer to the problems of Memphis.”
July 19, 2007