VOL. 123 | NO. 37 | Friday, February 22, 2008
Too Much 'Rancor' Creeps in to Bass Pro Deliberations
By Bill Dries
NO STANDING OVATIONS: Three commissioners walked out as Greg Ericson spoke at a Shelby County Board of Commissioners session about a proposed agreement by Bass Pro Shops to develop The Pyramid instead of the Ericson Group. -- Photo By Bill Dries
Day two of the Bass Pro Pyramid road show came with political overtones, a quick exodus from a meeting room and agreement that the retailer probably won't pay any rent to the city and county.
Pyramid project director Robert Lipscomb Wednesday presented terms of the tentative development agreement to Shelby County Board of Commissioners. Memphis City Council members were briefed Tuesday.
Both bodies as well as Mayors Willie Herenton and A C Wharton Jr. would have to approve the agreement before plans could be drawn up for a hunting and fishing gear superstore and other attractions in The Pyramid. And there remains the real possibility that the commission and council will amend the agreement in some way that will require Bass Pro to review the terms again.
Smell tests and priorities
Commissioner Mike Ritz noted that Bass Pro's rental payments of at least $1 million a year based on a percentage of sales once their proposed attractions are up and running come with the stipulation that the rent amount will be offset by taxes they pay. Ritz argued Bass Pro could pay more than $1 million in taxes and not pay any rent.
"They're not paying us a dime's worth of rent in this deal, ever," Ritz said.
Lipscomb didn't disagree with the scenario but countered that Bass Pro would still be paying taxes as well as any additional revenue brought in through sales tax and the hotel/motel tax.
"This is a Bass Pro deal, not a city of Memphis-Shelby County deal," Ritz said. "It doesn't even pass the smell test. ... We need to bring in people who have done this before many times."
"You have a particular bias against retail and PILOTs (payments-in-lieu-of-taxes). And I understand that," Lipscomb replied.
FAMILIAR ROUTE: The Riverfront Development Corp. is scheduled to take its Beale Street Landing project back to the Memphis Landmarks Commission next week for a certificate of appropriateness. -- Image Courtesy Of The Riverfront Development Corp.
Commissioner Mike Carpenter said he thought the monthly payments Bass Pro would make during the planning phase of the project should be more like $50,000 instead of $35,000. Carpenter was one of several commissioners who appeared visibly weary of the same questions being asked repeatedly during a three-hour session that was supposed to last an hour and a half.
"I've had 65 to 70 e-mails about this project," Carpenter said. "We've got kids dying in school. We've got the highest infant mortality rate. We've got a budget deficit. We've got $1.8 billion in debt.
"I just have to wonder - this is an important project, but are our priorities a little bit out of whack?"
A matter of preferences
Commissioner Steve Mulroy pushed Lipscomb hard on Lipscomb's claims that there wasn't enough financial data on the Ericson Group's proposal for a theme park in The Pyramid and that the theme park industry is not a wise choice given its fortunes in recent years. Mulroy said Lipscomb was acting as an advocate for Bass Pro.
Commissioner Wyatt Bunker said Lipscomb should have done more than pick banks at random to see if they had dealt with the firms.
"There's a whole lot of banks, man. ... You're saying you've got concerns about their financials. You're trying to build a case against them," Bunker said.
Lipscomb denied he was pushing the Bass Pro plan by being too harsh about the Ericson plan.
"If anybody wants a viable alternative (to Bass Pro), folks - it's me," he said at one point.
Commissioner Sidney Chism later accused unnamed commissioners of tilting the dialogue toward Ericson.
"We've got at least one or two commissioners that's really been set on pushing an agenda rather than looking at the facts that have been laid out," he said. "I want to make sure that I don't approve of a situation where somebody can get what they're looking for out of the deal. If there's a commissioner up here that fits in that category, identify yourself."
Bunker made the same observation about other commissioners and Lipscomb.
"There is a strange undercurrent pushing for Bass Pro," he said. "There's a bunch of smoke and mirrors this morning that I don't appreciate."
Mulroy moved to give Ericson a chance to speak, which drew strong objections from several commissioners. A roll call vote allowed Ericson to speak. That's when Lipscomb and Marshall as well as County Commissioners Deidre Malone, Henri Brooks and Joe Ford left the room.
'A lot of rancor'
Mulroy heads the group Save Libertyland!, which has entered into a contract with Ericson to turn over the Zippin Pippin rollercoaster from the old Libertyland amusement park for Ericson's Pyramid Harbor project. The ownership of the roller coaster is still in doubt. The transfer to Pyramid Harbor would not involve Ericson paying the nonprofit group.
"You don't pick and choose information and present just the information that makes your side look good," Ericson said. "We're not just doing this off the top of our heads. We've spent years working on this proposal. ... We've done everything we've been asked. We've bent over backwards."
Wednesday's session began with Lipscomb attempting to tone down some of the rhetoric from Tuesday's council briefing. He was adamant in the earlier presentation that he had next to no information about the Ericson Group's finances or those of its partners in the venture.
Ericson insisted he had given Lipscomb lots of information and had even met with city and county government officials including Lipscomb to introduce them to his partners.
He accused Lipscomb of telling "lies and falsehoods."
As Lipscomb began Wednesday, he noted there had been "a lot of rancor."
"Let's keep it about the project. It's not personal," he said. "There's too much rancor. There's too much personality."