White elephant watch: Arenas that time forgot

When Memphis’ Pyramid arena was set to open in 1991, sports promoter Sidney Shlenker promised: “It”s going to be a monument like the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, a signature for the city. The difference is this will have something to do inside it.”

Mmm, not so much. While the Pyramid was initially home to the University of Memphis basketball team, and hosted concerts and like, all those activities fled to the new FedExForum once it was built by the city to lure the Grizzlies in 2004. Shlenker, who promised to repay the city’s construction bonds on the Pyramid from proceeds of events there, instead soon declared bankruptcy, leaving Memphis saddled with the bulk of the $62 million debt. Now Shelby County is debating whether to sell its share in the empty arena to the city, which would only reshuffle the taxpayer deck chairs, while officials hold out hope that a Bass Pro Shops superstore could fill the building. Of course, that idea has only been kicking around since 2005, and city negotiator Robert Lipscomb didn’t exactly sound optimistic it would get moving anytime soon, saying only of the impending county sale: “Well, it’s always easier when you have to deal with one entity as opposed to two.”

Of course, at least Memphis got 13 years of use out of its arena, which is more than Bradenton, Florida can say. The Gulf Coast town’s arena, originally intended for the Gulf Coast Swords minor-league hockey team, never got any further than being partly built before financing fell through in 2005, and construction halted. Now the site is being put up for auction, and the partly built arena will likely be razed, in part because it no longer meets state building codes for hurricane resistance — ironic given that one reason given for building the arena in the first place was as a hurricane shelter.