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VOL. 128 | NO. 149 | Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bass Pro Wins Signage Approval

By Amos Maki

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Bass Pro Shops won overwhelming approval Tuesday, July 30, for its latest signage plans for The Pyramid, clearing a potential obstacle to the public-private initiative to turn the shuttered arena into a destination attraction.

The Downtown Memphis Commission Design Review Board voted 5-1 to approve the Springfield, Mo.-based company’s latest design plans, including changes in the number and style of signs that will be placed on The Pyramid’s exterior.

“In my opinion, Bass Pro has done an outstanding job responding to our questions and comments and the community’s questions and comments,” said review board member Ray Brown. “They’ve gone above and beyond.”

Bass Pro Shops went back to the drawing board after the company’s initial plans for large, lighted logos on all four sides of the structure – featuring the company’s trademark yellow background with red letters – drew some objections from the community and concerns from some on the review board.

Bass Pro’s latest proposal features metallic-finish signs with green halo LED illumination on the south, east and west sides of The Pyramid. Each sign – which would light the individual letters of Bass Pro Shops – would be 78 feet tall and 115 feet wide. There would be no signage on the north side of The Pyramid facing the residential communities on Mud Island’s north end.

The Pyramid is located in the section of Downtown that contains some of the most restrictive signage regulations in the city, but Downtown Memphis Commission staff recommended approval of the package because of the transformative nature of the project.

Most review board members agreed, saying the Bass Pro Shops attraction would revive the building’s place in the city skyline while boosting the economy.

“Everybody who lives and works Downtown will benefit from this wonderful neighbor,” said review board member Suhair Lauck, owner of The Little Tea Shop restaurant.

At least one review board member and multiple members of the public objected to Bass Pro’s proposal.

Review board member Mila Borden said the board could be setting a precedent by allowing some exemptions from design guidelines.

“For us to completely disregard the sign codes for no reason, it’s very difficult for us to go back and justify to the next applicant why their application doesn’t get approved,” said Borden, who cast the lone dissenting vote. “It has to be more than, ‘It’s somebody who is big and important.’”

Brown said review board members were not in place just to enforce existing guidelines but also to use their expertise on when to grant exemptions to regulations.

“That’s what boards and commissions are set up to do – use their best professional judgment to make exceptions to where the code does not apply to a given situation, and this situation is particularly unique,” Brown said.

“Unless somebody else comes along and builds another pyramid on the riverfront and puts another store in, we’ll never see the likes of this. So I think we have to be flexible enough not to apply rules that were never intended to be applied to a situation like this.”

One particular sign drew strong objections from members of the public, including the Memphis Area Women’s Council.

Bass Pro’s proposed sign for its Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl & Grill, a restaurant featuring large aquariums and a bowling alley, shows a scantily clad mermaid in a fish bowl.

A sign for “Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl,” which features a scantily clad mermaid in a fish bowl, drew objections from the public.

“After all the thought and discussion of making signage appropriate and appealing, to see this sexist, regressive, insulting image emerge as part of the package is deeply disappointing,” said Deborah Clubb, executive director of the Memphis Area Women’s Council, in an email to Bass Pro and DMC staff.

Borden also pointed out that other Uncle Buck’s signs and logos do not feature the mermaid.

“They have various sign packages they can choose from,” Borden said.

Bass Pro architect Tom Jowett said the company would take the community’s concerns into consideration.

In 2010, the city and Bass Pro entered into a lease for the destination retailer to occupy the redeveloped Pyramid for an initial period of 20 years, with seven five-year renewals for a possible total of 55 years.

Since then, the city has been preparing the shuttered Downtown arena to be redeveloped by Bass Pro into a tourist and retail destination attraction. Bass Pro is preparing its portion of the work, and the project is slated to open in late 2014, roughly a year after previous estimates.

Bass Pro’s plans for The Pyramid include a “sky ride” to the top of the building and new balconies on the two-level observation deck, providing visitors with unique views of the city.

The project includes a 59-room hotel, or lodge, called the “Big Cypress Lodge.” That component likely will be modeled after the company’s Big Cedar Lodge luxury wilderness resort near Branson, Mo., and will be operated by Bass Pro, not an independent hotel operator.

“We had an all-day meeting (Monday, July 29) and determined Bass Pro will be the operator of the hotel,” Jowett said.

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