Mayor Wharton wants to pump $4 million in sales tax revenues into Pyramid area
the Commercial Appeal | By Richard Locker
Mayor A C Wharton’s administration wants to pump $4 million a year in state sales-tax revenue that Memphis is already collecting in a tourism development zone Downtown into redevelopment of The Pyramid and its environs, the Pinch area. But the plan received a mixed reaction today at Shelby County’s state legislative delegation, including a buzz saw of opposition from Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis. “I want to make sure no tax money goes to Bass Pro Shops, because they’ve been dragging their feet on this for years and have treated us horribly!” she told city Finance Director Roland McElrath during a presentation. Missouri-based Bass Pro Shops is in long-running negotiations with the city to turn the vacant and unused Pyramid arena into a $100 million shopping and tourist destination with retail sales, restaurants and a giant conservation exhibit on the Mississippi River and its numerous natural attributes.
Memphis created a Downtown-area tourism development zone under state law in 2004 in which the city is allowed to use whatever increases in state sales tax revenue is generated there for specific state-approved “public purposes.” Since 2004, some of that money is being used to pay off the debt on a major renovation of the city’s convention center. Now the city is asking the Tennessee legislature to amend the tourism development zone statute to allow the proceeds to also be spent on The Pyramid area redevelopment.
McElrath said the existing zone — which the city does not propose to expand — currently generates about $4 million more a year than is needed to pay the convention center debt, and the city wants to channel that into preparing The Pyramid for use by Bass Pro and ancillary projects around the iconic structure. A summary of the project given to the Shelby delegation today says the money would go for “making extensive improvements to the Memphis Pyramid and (the surrounding historic Pinch District), including retrofitting existing facilities and new construction. In addition to 600,000-plus square feet of retail space, the redevelopment includes: hotel, aquarium, restaurants, traveling exhibits, conference space, commercial office space, parking facilities, conservation and wetlands exhibits, museum and marina.”
The document said the total cost of the overall project is $275 million, including $200 million in “private investment” presumably including Bass Pro Shops and others, and $75 million in public funds. Of the public investment, $30 million would fund new construction and $20 million would pay for upgrades in the 40-acre Pyramid site; $20 million would pay for infrastructure in the adjoining area which the city is calling the “Gateway” component, and $5 million would be spent on acquisition of property in that area. The Gateway is bound by Shadyac Street on the north, Third Street on the east, Jackson Street on the south and Front Street on the west.
McElrath said the $4 million in surplus revenue collections from the TDZ are currently going into the city’s reserve fund.TaJuan Stout-Mitchell, the city’s government relations director, emphasized to the state lawmakers that Memphis is not asking for new money, only to expand the scope of what the money already being collected can be spent on. (Prior to the TDZ statute, the state sales tax would have gone into state government’s coffers.) Under questioning by the Shelby lawmakers, McElrath said the money would not go directly to Bass Pro Shops, which he said is the “only entity” the city is currently negotiating with for The Pyramid.
“This is not a bill for Bass Pro Shops,” the city finance director said. “But they would be the beneficiary,” Marrero said. “We think the citizens of Memphis will benefit,” McElrath said. He said any money the city spends on the project will be on components that the city will continue to own. Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, agreed with Marrero. “I’m not supporting Bass Pro Shops at all. We need something that will bring people into the city, and bait and tackle won’t do it.” But there was support among several members of the 22-member Shelby delegation. “The Pyramid is there and we need to do something with it. We need to do what we can to encourage Bass Pro Shops, or somebody,” said Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, whose district includes the Pyramid. Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, said the Bass Pro plan would “at least” create a use for the Pyramid until the city can do better. Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, said the project “makes sense to me.”