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VOL. 123 | NO. 35 | Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Seismic Concerns Leave Pyramid-Bass Pro Terms Still Shaky

By Bill Dries

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The city of Memphis approached Bass Pro Shops in 2005 about developing a store and other attractions in The Pyramid. That was one of the disclosures made Tuesday by Robert Lipscomb, the Herenton administration’s point man on the Pyramid development plan.

Lipscomb outlined the tentative development agreement between local government and Bass Pro executives for City Council members Tuesday afternoon. He does the same thing for County Commissioners today.

Lipscomb said a Pyramid reuse committee settled on Bass Pro after rejecting a series of proposals.

“None on them met the conditions of what the committee wanted. … The committee felt that we should pursue a destination retailer. It was felt the best opportunity for that would have been Bass Pro.”

Lipscomb also said seismic concerns remain a huge concern for Bass Pro executives and ultimately could still cause Bass Pro to call off the proposal. The city has hired former City Council chairman Tom Marshall, who is also an architect, as a consultant on the seismic issues.

Marshall told council members that Bass Pro is right to be concerned about whether its attractions, which include a seven-story hotel, could withstand a major earthquake. Marshall has consulted with other experts on the seismic risk. He said after the council session that Bass Pro executives have agreed to at least weigh a list to be prepared of possible seismic retrofitting options and their costs before making a decision on the future of their proposal.

Two seismologists, two structural engineers and three architects have been working on the concerns, according to Marshall. Lipscomb said the seismic issues were the major factor in talks with Bass Pro going up to the Jan. 31 deadline for some kind of development agreement.

“The way it’s designed and the way it’s built is safe,” Marshall said of The Pyramid. “Any additional load that’s placed on that foundation could be seriously jeopardized given the sight soil classification if it’s not designed properly.”

The Bass Pro tentative plans would include several additional loads - namely the hotel and a huge aquarium. Marshall said the hotel could possibly lose a story and special supports would be able to support the six-story structure as well as a similar platform for an aquarium.

Council member Harold Collins questioned whether Marshall had a conflict of interest. Marshall left the council at the end of 2007. During his tenure, the council did debate the possibility of a Bass Pro store at The Pyramid. Marshall said he didn’t have a strong opinion at the time and only started working for the city on the project several days ago.

City Council members plan to take up the development agreement and possibly amend it at their March 4 session. Council Chairman Scott McCormick said he will approach County Commissioners about setting up a joint city-county committee. Because The Pyramid is owned by the city and the county, any development agreement would have to win the approval of the commission and council as well as Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr.

Several council members said they are opposed to a clause in the agreement that prevents city or county government from negotiating with any other entity about use of The Pyramid while Bass Pro is developing plans for the facility.

Taking out the exclusivity clause would allow the council to pursue the idea of allowing Ericson Group to develop Mud Island. Developer Greg Ericson’s Pyramid Harbor proposal also includes a theme park in The Pyramid. But Lipscomb made it clear Tuesday that he doesn’t consider the proposal valid.

Lipscomb said his review of the Pyramid Harbor plan found the proposal lacking in financial detail and Ericson lacking development experience. With Ericson sitting a few feet away in the council committee room, Lipscomb also said the theme park industry is in decline to a greater degree than sporting goods retailers and is not a prudent course for the two governments to pursue.

Marshall also said The Pyramid could not hold up under the stresses of running a roller coaster up one side of the exterior – one of the major features of Ericson’s Pyramid plan.

“I’ve never heard so many lies and falsehoods about my proposal or any proposal ever. It’s most amazing to me that Robert Lipscomb got almost everything wrong,” Ericson said after the meeting. “I feel strongly that the City Council and County Commission need to hire an independent firm to do an independent analysis of the two projects.”

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