Pyramid to Become ‘Cypress Swamp’

By Bill Dries

Memphis City Council members seem ready to put Bass Pro Shops in The Pyramid, as the council will vote on a lease between the company and the city next month.

The council this week got its first detailed look at the lease as well as some new drawings for what The Pyramid would look like with the outdoor retailer calling it home.

“We’re at a point where it appears to be that … we’re resolved that we are going to do this,” Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said at the end of the meeting. “Let’s just make sure that we have our questions answered and that it’s in the best interest of the city and Bass Pro.”

The design theme for the superstore and other parts of the project is, in a word, “swamp.” As in “cypress swamp,” according to architect Tom Marshall.

“The cypress swamp will essentially be like a gunite pool at the base of the arena level,” Marshall told council members at Tuesday’s council executive session. “Those cypress trees would rise up into that large void and for the first time fill that void of The Pyramid structure itself.”

There would be a second level with walkways through the treetops and the top of a waterfall to the ground level. Marshall described that and another upper level as the “mercantile” levels with lots of retail activity including tentative plans for a bowling alley and almost certainly at least one restaurant of some kind as well as an aviary for ducks and other birds indigenous to the area flyway.

“It’s going to be a really go-to place,” he said. “It’s not just a store.”

Bass Pro Shops president and CEO Jim Hagale was in town for the presentation. He said the company is “excited” to be “a little bit of a catalyst” for development beyond The Pyramid. He said Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris will also be personally involved in the planning of the attractions.

Meanwhile, Wharton told council members the city will put up a total of $60 million that will be broken down in three parts.

The city, as landlord, will spend $20 million to provide a “warm lit shell” for Bass Pro Shops. “Warm lit shell” is a standard term in such contracts for providing a building that has the basic necessities. The amount includes $4 million to $5 million for seismic retrofitting, removing the seating bowl in what was once a 20,000-seat arena, improving flood pumps and making a wooden flood wall a concrete flood wall to be like the other flood walls on the western side of The Pyramid.

The city will give Bass Pro Shops $30 million toward the improvements the retailer will make in the building.

And the city will spend $10 million to buy properties around The Pyramid for future development. Some of that property is land between The Pyramid and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital that is part of the business district called The Pinch. “Some of it will be coming south out of The Pyramid. We don’t own all of that,” Wharton said before declining to be more specific about the land involved.

All of the city’s contribution to the project would be in the form of state and federal funding and financing to be paid off with state sales tax revenue that would flow back into the project through a Tourism Development Zone.

“These are not hunches. We’ve used some of the best economic experts in the business who have no affiliations with us,” Wharton said later. “They have no reason to puff. They are not getting a contingent fee out of what we make.”

Wharton said he is confident of the sales tax projections.

“We tested them and retested them,” he said. “Nothing has happened to undermine our confidence in the projections that we’re basing them on.”

Attorney Hunter Humphreys also explained to council members that a rent offset allowing Bass Pro Shops to count any property taxes it might pay on improvements would not apply to something like the hotel Bass Pro Shops plans to build as a separate structure outside The Pyramid itself.