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VOL. 123 | NO. 36 | Thursday, February 21, 2008

All's Fair in Love and Pyramid Negotiations

By Bill Dries

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NOT EXACTLY QUAKING - YET: Point man Robert Lipscomb, right, told City Council chairman Scott McCormick, left, and other council members Tuesday that seismic concerns nearly killed Bass Pro Shops' proposal for The Pyramid - and still could. -- Photos By Bill Dries

The early reviews are in. And nothing appears certain in plans to let Bass Pro Shops develop The Pyramid.

Even the stability of The Pyramid was in doubt as Memphis City Council members and members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners got their first look this week at a tentative development agreement between Bass Pro and the local governments.

Council members plan to begin marking up and considering changes to the agreement at March 4 committee sessions. "And we could march forth after that," quipped Council chairman Scott McCormick.

At the top of the lists of several council members is the clause that says the city and county cannot negotiate with anyone else for use and development of The Pyramid. That is even though Bass Pro could still walk
away from the deal at any time for any reason.

"We've been going steady with them for two years," said council member Jim Strickland, referring to the contract talks under way with Bass Pro since 2005. "It's time to date other people."

Council member Shea Flinn stuck with the theme.

"I don't care if they love us. This is business. ... I think we've got room to negotiate," he said.


Hearts and flowers

Meanwhile, concerns about keeping the building earthquake resistant with the addition of a seven-story hotel and huge aquariums very well could bring the project to an end before any construction begins, said Robert Lipscomb, the city Housing and Community Development director who negotiated with Bass Pro on behalf of both governments.

Lipscomb said Tuesday the seismic concerns were the catch that kept negotiations going up to the Jan. 31 deadline for a development agreement. They are still a concern.

The city has hired two seismologists, two structural engineers and three architects who have been looking at what seismic fixes might be needed. Heading the group is former City Council chairman Tom Marshall, who is an architect.

"Their questions as it turns out are very well founded," Marshall said. "They
have pledged to work with us to overcome these obstacles in a way that creates life safety. It's going to take a little while before we know."

Marshall and the other experts have ruled out an expensive retrofitting of the existing Pyramid superstructure. But subsoil classification results that came in Monday night were "generally unfavorable," according to Marshall, who added, "We believe this can be overcome."

SHAKY GROUND?: Former City Council member Tom Marshall is heading a team studying seismic fixes that might be needed at The Pyramid. -- Photo By Bill Dries

"The way it's designed and the way it's built is safe," Marshall told reporters later. "Any additional load that's placed on that foundation could be seriously jeopardized given the sight soil classification if it's not designed properly."


Loads of issues

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

Lipscomb's briefing on the Bass Pro terms also came with a brutal assessment of plans by the Ericson Group to build a theme park in The Pyramid and develop attractions on Mud Island as well as the surrounding riverfront.

Lipscomb said his review of developer Greg Ericson's 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.

"If those outdoor theme parks with huge amounts of rides are closing, then why do we think a small theme park indoors can sustain itself?" Lipscomb asked rhetorically Tuesday.

"Can I answer that?" interjected Ericson.

"No," Lipscomb replied as Ericson was ruled out of order.

The city approached Bass Pro Shops in 2005, Lipscomb said, after a Pyramid reuse committee rejected a series of proposals including Ericson's theme park proposal.

"None of them met the conditions of what the committee wanted. ... The committee felt that we should pursue a destination retailer," Lipscomb said. "It was felt the best opportunity for that would have been Bass Pro."

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," Ericson said after the
council briefing. "It's most amazing to me that Robert Lipscomb got almost everything wrong."

Bass Pro Pyramid Parts

Terms

The city and county cannot make an agreement, binding or nonbinding, with anyone else for use of The Pyramid starting with the development period.

The development period is 12 months. No six-month extension is outlined in an earlier draft.

Plans would be drawn up by July 31. Getting the permits and paperwork and letting construction contracts runs from August through January, and the periods can overlap.

Bass Pro pays the city and county $35,000 a month for the development period. That represents the monthly cost of maintaining The Pyramid. A two-year construction period would ensue.

$30 million in federal money would be provided by city and county government.

Bass Pro would lease The Pyramid from the city and county for 20 years with seven renewal periods of five years each.

Rent for year one of operation is $880,000. Each year after is 1 percent of gross sales of boats, ATVs and RVs with a cap of $250 per sale; 2 percent of all other gross sales of merchandise and restaurant sales.

The total from both percentage deals guaranteed for a total minimum of $1 million a year after the first year of the lease.


Attractions

Hotel (seven stories): 287,100 square feet. 200 rooms, free standing lining three sides of The Pyramid.

Aviary & Museum: 80,154 square feet

Sphere with a walking trail to view regional and exotic birds. The museum would include live animals and a cypress swamp.

Bass Pro Shop store: 150,235 square feet. Featuring a manmade mountain with interior caves, tunnels and aquariums. The mountain's summit could convert into a stage for seminars and meetings.

Restaurants: 42,415 square feet. Three eateries, two in The Pyramid and a third with a view of the harbor and Mississippi River.

Parking: (500 spaces): 70,000 square feet. Includes two parking structures.

Marina: No footage offered130 slips with space for boat sales demonstrations.


TOTAL SPACE: 729,904 square feet

TOTAL COST: Initially estimated at $75 million, but Bass Pro says its due diligence, including seismic fixes, shows it will be "significantly higher."

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