MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Shaped like an Egyptian wonder, the Memphis landmark known as the Pyramid stopped being a regular venue for basketball games and concerts in 2004.
The 32-story structure, with its sleek, angular exterior and prime location along the Mississippi River, has sat largely unused for 11 years, a symbol of the fate of obsolete architectural curiosities like Houston's Astrodome — cool-looking buildings with no real purpose.
It's time for the Pyramid to be reborn.
To the delight of outdoorsmen, tourist officials and local politicians, the Pyramid opens Wednesday as the newest location for Bass Pro Shops.
The outdoor goods retailer has converted the building into a stunning ode to commercialism and a promising tourist attraction. Aside from the tens of thousands of hunting, fishing and boating items for sale, visitors can walk through a man-made cypress swamp, go bowling or shoot arrows at the archery range. A 105-room hotel designed like a hunting lodge has balconies overlooking the indoor swamp. There are also live ducks, alligators and fish.
An observatory at the top offers stunning views of Memphis' downtown and the wide river.
Tourism officials believe the site could attract 2 million people a year and generate much-needed economic activity if travelers come to view it on par with other must-see Memphis destinations like Graceland, Stax Records, Sun Studio and the National Civil Rights Museum. And city leaders hope a $100 million investment in the project will turn the moribund neighborhood known as the Pinch into a thriving commercial area.
"The Pyramid over the last couple of decades has become our iconic symbol for the downtown skyline — it's to Memphis what the (Gateway) Arch is to St. Louis," said Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau . "With an opportunity like this, it will become an attraction that will bring millions of people to its doorstep."
Opened in 1991, the Pyramid lost its luster when the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA and the University of Memphis Tigers basketball team left for the new FedExForum, located on Beale Street. Before then, it hosted Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournament games and was a concert stop for Billy Joel, the Rolling Stones and many others.
Bass Pro and the city agreed on a 55-year lease in 2010. Construction to convert the 535,000-square foot building from arena to megastore began four years ago. About 700 people worked on construction. Another 600 people have been hired as Bass Pro employees.
The result of the makeover is impressive. The cypress swamp covers most of the ground floor. Moss dangles from fake trees, and the watery bog is dotted with stuffed wild pigs and other animals.
Surrounding the swamp are various retail sections with hand-painted wall murals of idyllic outdoor scenes. The fishing section contains about 30,000 items. A general store will sell homemade fudge. The 13-lane bowling alley has a water motif with fish dangling from the ceiling and ball returns shaped like alligator mouths. There's also an interactive duck hunting game.
An elevator takes visitors up to The Lookout at Pyramid, a restaurant and bar with an observation deck providing panoramic views of the river and city.
Rooms at the Big Cypress Lodge were inspired by hunting camps. They have a rustic feel, with dark wood trim and private porches with rocking chairs.
But there are also modern amenities, like flat screen TVs, electric fireplaces and room service, according to hotel manager Lana McDonald. The hotel also has a fitness center and spa.
McDonald estimated in early April that the low-end price for a regular room will start at around $259, depending on demand and availability.
David Hagel, general manager of the Bass Pro Shops Pyramid, did not disclose expected sale figures or how much the private company spent on construction. But he did describe it as the company's largest financial endeavor outside of its Springfield, Missouri location.
"If you can't be happy to see something like this, then you don't have a pulse," he said. "We're more than retail."
In a 2011 report, real estate consultant RKG Associates estimated that a 300,000-square-foot retail space would generate $350 in sales per square foot, or $105 million, per year.
City officials hope the new Pyramid generates a large economic impact to justify what The Commercial Appeal newspaper says is a $102 million investment in the project. The neighborhood near the Pyramid, already home to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, stands to benefit from the Pyramid's reincarnation.
"When the Pyramid closed, it had a major impact on restaurants and nightclubs in that area," Kane said. "With the revival of the Pyramid into the new Bass Pro, you will see that the market will naturally begin to fill in those areas that were shuttered."