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VOL. 130 | NO. 84 | Thursday, April 30, 2015

Pyramid Promises

Bass Pro Shops’ grand opening fulfills vow made 25 years ago

By Bill Dries

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It took about 25 years for an elevator ride to reach the top of The Pyramid.

That’s how long several generations of political leaders – three county mayors and three Memphis mayors as well as a changing group of city council members over seven elections – have been seeking a Pyramid with a ride to the apex.

Perhaps that’s why nobody at the Wednesday, April 29, formal opening of Bass Pro Shops’ superstore referred to it as a reopening.

The restaurant that will open at the top of The Pyramid next month features a large catfish tank and steampunk-style fish hanging from the ceiling. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“You’ve heard the phrase ‘a dream deferred.’ Right now, this is a dream realized. This doesn’t happen often,” said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. “There’s been some dark days because they were asking me every day, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ Some said, ‘Just get rid of it.’ You heard that. That was serious.”

Earlier in the day, a work crew was inside the catfish aquarium that is the centerpiece of the restaurant and bar at The Pyramid’s top.

Chris Johnson, food and beverage manager for Bass Pro Shops, is keenly aware that it’s been a longer wait by many Memphians than the retailer’s 10 years of planning.

The wait goes back to promises by developer Sidney Shlenker, who sold visions of an inclinator ride up the side to several attractions, from a music museum with holographic images to a Hard Rock Café suspended over the arena below.

“The city has watched this puzzle be put together for so many years,” Johnson said. “Everybody wants to know what it’s like up here and we want everybody to see it.”

The 28-story elevator ride costs $10 for about the next month before the restaurant and bar there open. The admission fee includes a souvenir mug filled with a cocktail or non-alcoholic “motito” as well as a photo on the observation deck and a chance to take in the view from all sides.

There were several references this week to the length of time it took to convert The Pyramid and changes that pushed it over budget and pushed back its opening several times.

Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid, seen here during a preview day Tuesday, April 28, has opened after a decade of planning and preparation.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Welcome to The Pyramid,” Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris said in a subdued but firm voice just inside the south entrance Wednesday evening after elected leaders including Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam took a tour.

On an outdoor stage minutes later, he loosened up a bit.

“Only at a redneck thing like this the governor doesn’t get introduced first,” Morris remarked.

Morris and Wharton singled out city Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb, who directed the city’s pursuit of the retailer.

Lipscomb defended the project repeatedly through the changes as well as through two ceremonies more than a year apart in which the city said each time it had completed basic work on preparing the building for Bass Pro Shops.

More stringent seismic code provisions than when The Pyramid originally was built nearly killed the project several times. State officials ultimately required the city to abide by the measures at an additional cost in the millions.

And then there were the changes in the hotel plans.

The first guests at the 103-room Big Cypress Lodge checked in earlier Wednesday.

“We feel like it will draw a range of different market segments,” said Lana McDonald, hotel manager. “This is for the serious outdoor enthusiast to a family that just wants to come and have a good time here. We have something in this building for everyone.”

The hotel was inside The Pyramid in the earliest and most tentative plans for Bass Pro when Willie Herenton was still Memphis mayor.

Then the planned rooms were moved to a lodge building that was to be on Front Street and serve as an entrance to The Pyramid on its eastern side.

Then the hotel rooms were back inside the building at additional expense to Bass Pro Shops.

As a result there is no entrance from Front Street that would serve as a gateway to the nearby Pinch District. The main entrance is on the south side of The Pyramid where Jefferson Avenue meets Riverside Drive.

“It was a tradeoff,” Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said, referring to the change in hotel plans despite an agreement between the city and Bass Pro for an eastern entrance considered crucial to the Pinch’s redevelopment, a next front for The Pyramid’s ongoing legacy.

“Yes, there will be a walkway,” Wharton insisted, saying the financing of it is “still to be determined.”

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 92 229 4,100
MORTGAGES 94 225 4,615
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 6 25 706
BUILDING PERMITS 170 538 9,806
BANKRUPTCIES 53 163 3,048
BUSINESS LICENSES 40 113 2,004
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 23 89 1,213
MARRIAGE LICENSES 15 55 769