I love Memphis. I really do. I've actually started to cheer for their basketball team, which has forced me to get over the fact that there are no Grizzly bear anywhere near Memphis. Still, this is one of America's great cities and I'm just in love with it. There is so much passion and good cheer there - it is quite contagious - and they are turning that enthusiasm into great things.
While Memphis is home to many case studies on chaotic but smart development, it also has one of the poster childs for orderly but dumb, that of course being the Memphis pyramid. I know there are a lot of people there deeply vested in seeing this through and I know there is nothing to be gained now by having it fail. I hope it is a wild success.
The lesson of the Memphis pyramid is not that large projects guarantee failure. They often don't. It's that large projects present large risks -- lots of unknowns over a long period of time in a vastly complex economic ecosystem -- that don't come close to justifying their potential upside gain. Even if the new Bass Pro Shop is wildly successful, what good could have been accomplished if the time, energy and resources spent on that project over the past couple of decades had instead gone into a less risky, more incremental approach?
So here we are, not even a year into the opening of the Bass Pro, and we're already realizing that things are not always as we project them to be. From the Memphis Daily:
“This probably isn’t a politically correct thing to say,” [Riverfront Development Corp. president Benny] Lendermon began cautiously as he talked about Bass Pro Shops and its impact on what is around the Pyramid, including Mud Island.
“I think Bass Pro is doing a wonderful job of attracting a large number of people to their store. And it’s going to generate a lot of revenue and spin off a lot of economic return to the city as the city was hoping it would. I think that model is going to work,” he said, followed by a long pause.
“Just personally, I don’t believe the people coming to the Bass Pro store are doing other things in Memphis,” he then said. “I’m not sure a lot of people who talk about how it brings people into Memphis and now how do we figure out what to do with them – I’m not sure that’s the case. I think the people that they are capturing at the store may not have any other time to spend doing anything else.”
But Dunham’s letter expresses hope “that the right Mud Island development can catalyze many of those transient visitors into a longer stay in Memphis.”
Lendermon also described the Pyramid visitors as transient, contrasting them with those who shop at the Bass Pro store on Sycamore View Road or at other retail in general.
“If you go into Wal-Mart, you’re not going in there to walk around and enjoy the ambience of their store,” he said. “If you are going into the Pyramid, especially someone who hasn’t been there very often or maybe never – you’re going to enjoy the ambience of the store.”
That means you might buy some fudge and a Coke, and possibly a T-shirt.
“And maybe not even a T-shirt,” Lendermon said. “They are having to rethink their whole marketing-sales expectation. That store’s turned out to be something they didn’t expect. Not all bad. It’s just a whole lot more people spending a whole lot less money.”
He likened it to a “super-nice welcome center” that still has an indisputably large economic impact.
The project is built. It's done. The money is committed and -- as I was told many times during the past few years -- Memphis is in for a penny, in for a pound here. Okay. Let's hope it works.
The only reason to step back and look at this now is to ask one simple question: Do we want to do this again?
Is this really the approach that is going to bring Memphis prosperity? Deep, broad and widely-shared prosperity? Financially resilient prosperity?
If the answer is no -- and it really should be -- then we need to have a conversation about how we start changing systems that are inclined to make huge, un-hedged bets with money Memphis doesn't have into systems that are designed to make small, ongoing, incremental bets on the people and neighborhoods of Memphis.
The people of Memphis would welcome this change. It would not need to be sold to them; they're already there. All it takes now is leadership.
And I'll attest: Memphis is home to some of the best leaders in this country. Their time has come.
(Top photo from Strong Towns)