The Pyramid & The Pinch

Posted on May 27, 2015

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WHAT BASS PRO’S NEWEST DOWNTOWN WONDERLAND WILL MEAN FOR THE PYRAMID’S CLOSEST NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOR

BY: DAVID MARSHBURN

On April 11th, just a few weeks away from Bass Pro Shop’s grand opening of the newly renovated Pyramid, a festive scene occurred in the district neighboring the once-vacant tomb’s eastern border; livable Memphis was putting on its newest MEMfix event, a block party of sorts, that showcased the potential of areas less frequented by Memphis residents. This installment centered on downtown’s historic Pinch District. Families descended on the neighborhood’s restaurants and shops, local bands took turns churning out classic rock favorites, and a sense of optimism filled the air.

“We haven’t seen this much activity on this end of Main Street in a while,” said Tanja Mitchell, former president of the Memphis Downtown Neighborhood Association. She said she hopes to see more of the same—“children, families and activity on North Main”—once the Pyramid opens.

The Pinch and the Pyramid
Downtown Memphis has undergone a positive transformation in the last few years. Main Street shops and new developments in the South Main Historic Arts District have brought lifeblood back to the city’s center, which resembled a metropolitan skeleton years ago. But while business booms throughout much of downtown, the Pinch District remains a relatively uninhabited shell of its future self.

Home to the city’s large Irish-immigrant and Jewish populations in the late nineteenth century, the district received its nickname from the gaunt look of its immigrant residents. The population looked so skinny that residents’ belts were said to have pinched their guts. Following World War II, most inhabitants flocked away from the Pinch into East Memphis and nearby suburbs. Not until the Pyramid opened in the early 1990s did the district once against see signs of life.

“The Pinch used to be the place to go—more than Beale Street back then,” said Paul Morris, president of the Memphis Downtown Commission. “When the Pyramid came in, it was helpful in one sense because it brought a lot of people. But it was harmful because they knocked a lot of the buildings down to make way for surface parking for people attending games and concerts.”

Once the Tigers and Grizzlies left for the newly constructed FedEx Forum, so did the life surrounding Memphis basketball’s former home. Since the Pyramid officially shut its doors in 2007, the Pinch has been reduced to a ghost town.

Hope for the pinched?
A few businesses have stood resilient despite the district’s emigration. Yet even Westy’s, a cornerstone of the Pinch for the last 30 years, suffers a loss of a quarter million dollars annually. Many business owners and residents hope that Bass Pro’s opening will shine a light on the Pinch in the same way the vacant Pyramid cast a shadow on the struggling neighborhood. But residual effects from the Bass Pro look to be minimal.

“The reopening of the Pyramid is going to be positive for all of downtown but … not the Pinch,” Morris said. “There’s really no way to walk from the main entrance of Bass Pro to the Pinch.”

Although the Pinch used to host droves of people before and after their visit to the Pyramid, Bass Pro has effectively isolated itself from the district by demolishing the bridge that stood as a connection between the two. Without a connection, much-needed foot traffic to the Pinch will remain small.

“You can’t walk from the Pinch District to the Bass Pro entrance,” said Jake Schorr, owner of Westy’s Restaurant and Bar. “The city approved the plan to build the Pyramid with a connection from Bass Pro to the Pinch District. They didn’t do it, they won’t do it, and building a connector would not be a particularly good thing for Bass Pro. It would go against the whole layout of the retail business.”

Bridges make good neighbors
Unfortunately for the district, any hopes of a future connection look bleak. According to Morris, Bass Pro brought a proposal before the city’s Design Review Board that had the company tearing down the old bridge and replacing it with a newer one.

“We asked Bass Pro, ‘Why are you tearing down this perfectly good foot bridge and putting a new one?’” Morris said. “Bass Pro said they wanted to center the bridge with Overton Avenue among other things. We approved the plan, but we wanted a pedestrian bridge because we wanted some connection with the Pinch. As it stands, it looks like they’ve backed off, at least for now.”

With no connection to the Pyramid, the positive effects felt from Bass Pro’s opening remain uncertain for the Pinch. But creating foot traffic to the area is not the district’s only concern. Now that the city has finished spending money on the Pyramid’s reconstruction, it’s next announced plan is to buy up the remaining parcels in the district and issue proposals for developers to come in and redevelop the whole community. While a much-needed redevelopment could potentially be a positive for the Pinch, the city is unsure at the moment of where to get the money to fund this plan.

“The plan is a huge expense to be paid that we don’t necessarily have the funding for,” Morris said. “But the other unintended consequence of that announcement by the city is that no other development can really move forward in the interim.”

A neighborhood in limbo
Because property owners are holding out to see what the city will do, the Pinch remains in limbo for the foreseeable future.

Current estimates have Bass Pro raking in over a million visitors in its first year. With many of those guests coming from out of town, Memphis will undoubtedly gain a great boost in tourism revenue.

“If people hop on the trolley stop at the Pyramid after vising Bass Pro to see what’s up in Memphis, they’ll discover Beale Street, they’ll discover the Arcade, and they’ll discover Westy’s,” Schorr said. “If only 5 percent of the expected visitors go out and look around downtown, there is more potential for business than there are seats at restaurants.”

Such optimism looks favorable for downtown Memphis. And while Bass Pro will provide a crucial economic boost for the city as a whole, the neighborhood in North Main will be holding its breath, uncertain on what its future holds.

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