In recent years, Memphis has shown a welcome appreciation for doing things right – National Civil Rights Museum expansion, AutoZone Park, FedEx Forum and Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
The cumulative effect of these signature projects should undermine once and for all the pervasive feelings that as Memphians, we just don’t deserve the best. We should settle for whatever we are offered, and the best project is always a cheap project. If AutoZone Park was a statement against this approach, surely FedEx Forum was its exclamation point.
The poster boy for this feeling of unworthiness is unquestionably The Pyramid, whose primary selling point was simple: it’s cheap. Of course, several problems like acoustic problems bedeviled the building during what should have been its honeymoon period and large cracks in some key walls appeared within a couple of years. But no matter; after all, it was cheap.
Now, 14 years after its opening, The Pyramid still remains unfinished – the inclinator that was supposed to glide up its side to the two-level apex is still missing, along with the dream of a landmark with a 365-day a year impact on the downtown economy. The bruised civic ego that emerged from that era even had a new verb that became part of the Memphis vocabulary – Shlenker’ed.
In the end, there was no Hard Rock Café on the south side of The Pyramid, there was no music hall of fame on the north side and the multi-media tours that began on the arena floor evaporated along with financing for the project. But the inclinator ride was another matter.
It was always considered the “cash cow” for the building, and Memphis and Shelby County Governments had feasibility studies showing that it would spin off enough money to pay for its capital costs and return money to local government.
But there was an “if.” A big “if.” First there had to be something at the apex worth seeing. The view along was not enough, because although it offered a rare view up river, there are better river views at the higher vantage points offered in the Morgan-Keegan Building and Commerce Square.
Ideas for apex attractions included a branch of Graceland, a tribute to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Wonders exhibitions from past shows and a small-scale hall of fame for Memphis Music. But nothing materialized, because local government was terrified of failure. There was too much political stigma already attached to the building to encourage a politician to wade into the inclinator project.
After all, The Pyramid itself was either loved or loathed. (Every public poll from its opening to a decade into its operations showed that 50 percent of Shelby Countians supported it and 50 percent opposed it.) Even with a feasibility study showing it could make money was not enough to risk another Pyramid failure in the wake of the mountains of promises that dissolved into a landslide of debts in bankruptcy court for governments’ private developer partners.
As a result, the inclinator up the side of the building’s north side was held captive as the “deal sweetener” to lure private investors to build out the 100,000 square feet on the north side of The Pyramid (now home to Wonders) and the 10,000 square foot, two-level apex 31 stories up.
Through three different processes to attract private investment, no decision was reached. One even cost Memphis the gifted filmmaker Marius Penczner, who moved from Memphis after he was selected and then unselected as developer of an indoor ecological theme park at The Pyramid, taking the reversal as a personal rebuke. He took his award-winning production experience to the Clinton-Gore campaign where he was celebrated as the “best in the business.” These days, that ecological, interactive theme park sounds awfully good, not just because it would mean that the building would have a tenant, but that it would have one whose theme of environmental sustainability would be a unique and timely “hook.”
But back to doing things right, Memphis’ feelings of unworthiness that led us to believe that $39 million could really pay for what promoters said would be a “first-class, state-of-the-art arena, complete with the balloons for the grand opening.”
The lessons from this are many, but chief among them are that as the future of The Pyramid, the feelings of unworthiness must be left at home. Memphis and Shelby County Governments will likely not find someone to pay for development of the building, much less pay for the sizable public debt on The Pyramid. But although this is likely, the mistakes of the past should not be repeated.
There should be no interest in a second-class project. There should be no decision made on the cheap. There should be a decision short on hype and long on worthiness.
Now, that’s reason enough for The Pyramid’s iconic place in Memphis.