The Memphis Pyramid Articles

June 7, 2001
Copyright 2000 MediaVentures

The Memphis City Council has approved funding for a new NBA arena to host the Vancouver Grizzlies. The funding plan calls for $250 million in bonds to be issued by the city and county. The county's vote is scheduled for next week. The bonds will have a 25-year term.

While the city and county are issuing the bonds, revenues to make payments will come from several sources. State and local sales tax rebates will fund $65 million and a hotel/motel tax will fund another $52 million in bonds. A car rental tax will cover $21 million in debt. The city's electric utility will finance $34.80 million in bonds from payments in lieu of taxes and a $1.15 ticket surcharge will fund $13.34 million in bonds.

State revenue will fund $20 million in bonds and city and county general fund revenue will account for another $24 million. A final $20 million has not been allocated.

A bill to create the car rental tax has passed the legislature and is on the way to the governor. The rest of the state funding, including the sales tax rebate, is still pending while the state studies the future of The Pyramid, the city's other arena which still carries a bond burden.

The vote followed an agreement on arena operations that will be the basis of a future 25-year lease. The agreement had two provisions that concerned some council members. One would give the team veto power over any plan to build a new arena during the team's lease term. Another would give the team a $6.25 million rebate if the arena were built for less than the $250 million budgeted. There is also a penalty of $3.75 million to be paid to the team if the arena is not available for play for the 2003 season. Many believed the 2003 deadline was too ambitious.

The Grizzlies are prohibited from leaving the arena for 10 years, but could consider moving after then if season ticket sales dropped below 14,900 per game. A group of local business people say they will buy to up 5,000 tickets a year to make up for any shortfall. If the 5,000 were not enough to meet the 14,900 goal, the team must be put up for sale before it could move. Local owners would have the first right to buy the team, followed by candidates identified by the city and county.

Should all that fail and the team opted to move, it must pay a share of the remaining arena debt. That amount begins at $94 million in year 10 and declines to $8.4 million.

The agreement acknowledges Federal Express' plan to buy naming rights for the arena, but does not note the price to be paid. If the team moves before the end of the 20-year deal, the naming rights money will be paid to the city and county.

The Grizzlies would manage the arena and get first crack over certain events over the city's other venue, The Pyramid. The Grizzlies will play temporarily at The Pyramid while the new arena is being built.

The future of The Pyramid is a major city and state concern. Bonds are still outstanding on the building and the new arena is expected to take away from the facility that only cleared about $100,000 last year. The agreement does not take away any events that the University of Memphis holds at The Pyramid and acknowledges the school's concern about its financial future at the building.

The agreement allows the Grizzlies to play rent-free and keep all ticket, concession, parking and other building revenues. The team would be responsible for operating expenses. The city and county must pay for capital improvements.

As part of the Grizzlies move, a group of local investors will pay $100 million to buy a minority share of the team. The team will pay $16 million in relocation costs and fund $8 million in losses while it waits for the new arena to be built.

The city's vote to approve funding did not come without opposition. A group opposed to the financing plan will now have 20 days to gather 41,000 signatures for force a referendum on the vote. County funding is expected to be approved next week. Forcing a referendum on those funds would require 58,000 signatures.

May 31, 2001
Copyright 2000 MediaVentures

Memphis has about two weeks to solidify its financing plan to build a new arena for the Vancouver Grizzlies. The deadline was set by the NBA this week during a tour of the city and the current arena, The Pyramid.

City and county officials were not pleased with the short deadline and complained that the NBA was asking them to make decisions before they had all the information needed. The financing plan, and even the issue of whether a new arena will be built, is still up in the air. The league said the short deadline is so they can finalize a playing schedule for next season.

A major issue is the level of private investment. While arena supporters planned a publicly-funded building, public sentiment calls for some private money to be involved. A group of local business people who will buy a minority interest in the team say that announcement is only a few days away and it should be in the area of $20 million toward the $250 million venue. Private money cannot account for more than 20% of the arena's cost or the general obligation bonds would lose their tax exempt status.

Some city council members are also pushing for private investors to make up any shortfalls if tax revenues fail to cover the city's debt payments.

Public sentiment on the private investment issue is strong and a group has begun organizing to force a referendum on the plan if it is objectionable. Once the City Council approves a bond resolution, citizens have 20 days to gather the 58,000 signatures needed to force a vote.

Another problem is that some of the money must come from the state and the legislature may not be prepared to move that quickly. The Tennessee Senate approved this week the use of hotel and motel tax money for a new building. That legislation needs only the governor's signature to become law. Still pending before the House and Senate is an increase in car rental taxes.

Also pending is $40 million in other state funding. Legislators have been slow to move on that while a study is being made of The Pyramid and whether it could be renovated to meet the NBA's needs. When the facility was built, it was designed so it could be expanded for NBA use. Estimates now suggest the cost of renovation would be close to that of a new building. The state wants some firm figures before committing to a new building. There are also questions about how the University of Memphis would fare if it shared The Pyramid with the NBA team. (See story below)

All of this is set behind the legislature's goal of adjourning for the year in the next week.

Locally, the city and county must determine how they want to come up with their share of the money. Originally general obligation bonds were planned, but because of the public's desire to reduce dependance on tax dollars, public officials may prefer to use revenue bonds, but pay a higher interest rate.

NBA officials said they were pleased with the market, the advance ticket sales campaign and plans to use The Pyramid as a temporary home for the Grizzlies while a new facility was being built.

May 24, 2001
Copyright 2000 MediaVentures

While Memphis politicians are working out final financing plans for a new arena to host the Vancouver Grizzlies, others are talking with the team about its future lease.

One of the issues still unresolved is the term. The city would like a longer view, but the team wants more flexibility if sales don't meet expectations. One option to help ease local concerns is to give the local investors that will be buying up to 50% of the franchise the option to buy the entire team if current majority owner Michael Heisley wants to move.

The Grizzlies like an option in the Indiana Pacers' lease on Conseco Fieldhouse that would allow them to leave after 10 years if certain attendance goals are not met. If the team opts to leave, it would be responsible for repaying the remaining arena debt, plus up to $50 million in damages.

Another snag in financing appeared this week when the Federal Aviation Administration objected to the proposed tax on car rentals at the airport. The proposed tax would generate $25 million toward the arena.

The FAA said taxes levied only on airport services must be used for the airport. The proposed tax would apply only to cars rented at the city's airport. Legislators plan to amend the bill, broadening the application of the tax to all car rentals in the county. It would include an exemption for cars rented while a driver's primary vehicle was being repaired.

Still also to be decided is how much private money will go into arena construction. When the team agreed to move, the arena was to be funded fully with public cash. Since polls showed the public objected, calls have been mounting for some private investment. An announcement of funding of up to $20 million is expected soon.

Team officials also note they will lose up to $16 million for the two years they play in The Pyramid arena while the new venue is being built. To ease that burden, the team wants a share of luxury suite revenue in The Pyramid. That is now controlled by the University of Memphis and the issue has not been resolved.

The University is expressing its concern about how an NBA team would affect its finances. The school believes it could lose from $500,000 to $2 million a year. Much of that loss would come from devaluation of the prices of suites and advertising at the Pyramid as sponsors buy positions in a new arena. The new arena is expected to get shows and other events that would have gone to the Pyramid.

The school gets 53% of suite revenue, 15% of advertising revenue and 10% of concession sales during university events. Meanwhile, the NBA said it would not allow a corporate sponsor to buy a team's name.

Express is prepared to give $100 million to the Grizzles to locate in Memphis and reportedly wanted its name on the building and for the team to be called the Memphis Express. The deal is not contingent on getting team naming rights. It's not known if loss of team rights will reduce the company's proposed payment.

City officials hope to get all the issues resolved by June 4 when they have tentatively scheduled a vote on arena funding. The vote would likely be limited because state funding is not expected to be in place and bond resolutions would be approved later.

May 17, 2001
Copyright 2000 MediaVentures

The Memphis City Council's budget committee has allocated $12 million in next year's budget to help build a new arena for the Vancouver Grizzlies. A majority of council members sit on the committee and supported the vote. While those members said they still have questions about the financing plan, they wanted to move the project forward and show the NBA they were serious about hosting the team.

County and state money must still be approved, but the Tennessee Senate Finance Committee gave its blessing this week for an increase in the car rental tax that will generate $25 million of the funding. The full Senate is expected to hear the bill shortly. Still to be approved is a rebate of state and local sales taxes. That only needs to be approved by the governor. The House is also considering a hotel-motel tax. It needs the full support of the local delegation, which was hesitant, but signed on after meeting with prospective owner J.R. Hyde.

Polls of local residents show that citizens feel more private money should go into the arena's construction. The building is now fully funded by taxpayers.

May 10, 2001
Copyright 2000 MediaVentures

Strong public sentiment that private money should go into a new arena proposed for the NBA Grizzlies has led local supporters to seek $20 million in gifts toward the $250 million building.

The current financing plan shows a building constructed with only public money, but polls show the public believes some private contribution should be made. With the state expected to cut $20 million from the $40 million being sought, local promoters are seeking $20 million in private money to make up the difference.

When the Grizzlies' move from Vancouver, nearly half the team will be sold to local investors. Those investors, and current owner Michael Heisley, say they won't invest in the arena. The local investors will put up an estimated $100 million for their share of the team and participate in the cost of moving the team which could be up to $36 million. The team will receive $100 million from Federal Express for building and team naming rights. The NBA must still approve sale of the team name. The team is expected to play as the Grizzlies for its first year.

The call for private money seemed to ease politicians' minds who must defend the investment of tax dollars to the public.

May 3, 2001
Copyright 2000 MediaVentures

A new poll shows Memphis residents aren't thrilled about footing the bill for a new basketball arena. In fact, 44% of those who favor an NBA team in the community feel there should be a combination of public and private money to fund the $250 million venue. An equal percent feel the venue should be built entirely with private funds.

Still, nearly two thirds think bringing the Vancouver Grizzlies to town is a good idea and 59% say they would probably attend one game a year. The poll has a margin of error of 5%.

Pollsters found high opposition to using property tax funds for arena construction. Nearly 74% were opposed to using city tax money and 71% were against using county tax money. But 74% said it would be fine to use sales tax money and 76% favored a ticket surcharge on arena events. Use of hotel/motel taxes was supported by 58% while only 41% favored taxes on car rentals. There was an even split on use of state tax money.

The poll was conducted for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal and comes before the final financing plan has been developed. Shelby County officials say they want to conduct their own poll of the complete plan before taking a final vote. That poll is expected in late May. No public vote is required to fund the new building.

Public sentiment is also beginning to reach state legislators who have begun wavering in their commitment to the arena. Local legislators say constituent messages are running 10 to 1 against public funding of the arena. Political observers say the local delegation must be united in its support if the issue is to win legislative approval.

The Vancouver Grizzlies have said they want to move to Memphis and are awaiting league approval. The Charlotte Hornets had earmarked Memphis for a new home, but withdrew their bid this week. The Hornets' decision clears the way for marketing campaigns for the 70 luxury suites and 2,700 club seats planned for the arena.

As part of the move, local investors want to buy nearly half of the Grizzlies. The investors have not commented on the calls for more private money. A spokesman rejected a proposal for $40 million to $50 million, but did not comment on whether some investment may be possible.

Tennessee will be asked to fund $116 million toward new arena with the money coming from grants and a sales tax district created around the arena. State legislators and the governor say they are willing to contribute to the project, but may not come up with all the money the city wants. The biggest problem is the $40 million in direct money that the city is requesting.

State sales taxes from the arena itself would fund $70 million. The figure assumes average attendance of 14,900 fans and a ticket price average of $49. Hotel/motel taxes would fund another $35 million. Memphis Light, Gas and Water must also make annual $2.5 million payments in lieu of property taxes with the money going to $30 million in arena debt. A new 2% car rental tax would finance $25 million in debt and a $1 seat use charge would cover another $16 million in debt.

The team would pay no rent to use the arena in exchange for taking over management of the venue. The team would also cover operating expenses.

Meanwhile, the NBA is seeking information on plans to host an NBA team in the city's current arena next season. Plans are for the team to play at The Pyramid until the new venue opens in 2003. The arena needs improvements in locker rooms, communications and television facilities. Lighting must also be improved.

April 26, 2001
Copyright 2000 MediaVentures

Shelby County commissioners have hired a firm to poll public sentiment about funding for a new NBA arena in Memphis, but put off the work until late May. The $32,000 survey was delayed to give city and county officials more time to finalize a financing plan before measuring the reaction.

Both the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Charlotte Hornets have picked Memphis for their new home. The NBA is expected to decide next month which team will be allowed to move. Charlotte voters will decide June 5 on a funding package that includes a new arena.

A public vote is not required under the financing plan under consideration in Memphis, but elected officials want to get public opinion before making final decisions.

Meanwhile, those planning the new building say it will likely be built adjacent to the city's new AutoZone Park baseball stadium. Other sites are also under consideration.

April 19, 2001
Copyright 2000 MediaVentures

The State of Tennessee wants to review the potential of Memphis' Pyramid arena to determine if it would be better to renovate the facility to NBA standards rather than build a new venue. The investigation is part of an effort to get state funds for a new building to host the Vancouver Grizzles that want to make the move south.

When the Pyramid was built 10 years ago, it was supposed to meet NBA standards, but reports now say it would cost $192 million to make needed upgrades. A new arena is estimated at $250 million. The state is being asked for $115 million.

The previous study of the Pyramid suggested adding a club, restaurant and 70 luxury suites. A 2,000-car parking garage was also suggested. The venue now has seating for 20,000, 26 suites and no club section. The Pyramid's shape makes the upgrades more expensive since the building is not designed for expansions.

The financing plan for the new arena calls for the state to rebate sales tax money from the new building, plus make a $40 million grant. One way of making the $40 million grant is for the state to assume the remaining $40 million in debt on the Pyramid, freeing city funds for the new arena. State officials want to satisfy themselves that they aren't buying a diminished asset and that building a new arena is the best way to go.

The County Commission is considering a public poll on financing of a new arena. Since no public vote is required on the financing plan, elected officials want to be sure public sentiment is measured.

Meanwhile, the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce says a new NBA team could bring $881 million to the city in its first year. The study was researched over the past few weeks.

The report says nearly half the benefits would come from the construction project alone. It also estimates media exposure to the city as a $166 million benefit. Another $48 million in promotion dollars are assigned for promotion on NBA web sites and through merchandise sales.

Investment in new business and other enterprises around the new arena is valued at $165 million. Another $48 million is credited to spending by visiting team and league officials during the first year. All figures determine the benefit as dollars flow through the local economy.

April 12, 2001
Copyright 2000 MediaVentures

Tennessee will be asked to fund about half the cost of a new $250 million arena in Memphis for the Vancouver Grizzlies. The plan was outlined by a committee that worked to bring the Grizzlies to the city. The rest of the money would come largely from sales taxes generated by the arena and surrounding businesses. Officials stressed that the current plan is not final.

State money would come from grants and a sales tax district created around the arena. Total state aid is $116 million. State legislators and the governor say they are willing to contribute to the project, but may not come up with all the money the city wants. The biggest problem is the $40 million in direct money that the city is requesting.

State sales taxes from the arena itself would support $110 million in debt while taxes from the district around the arena would support $35 million when added to $5 million already allocated for convention center work. Sales tax revenue must grow 2.15% faster in the district than the county as a whole for five years to generate enough money to fund the debt service. Memphis Light, Gas and Water must also make annual $2.5 million payments in lieu of property taxes with the money going to $30 million in arena debt.

A new 2% car rental tax would finance $25 million in debt and a $1 seat use charge would cover another $16 million in debt. An existing hotel tax can support $10 million more. The city and county would also borrow another $24 million in total additional funds. That would be funded from current cash flow.

The team would pay no rent to use the arena in exchange for taking over management of the venue. The team would also cover operating expenses.

For more information: See the marketing for tickets, luxury suites and other arena offerings at Memphis NBA

April 5, 2001
Copyright 2000 MediaVentures

Research done for the NBA shows the city could easily host a franchise and would rank about midway among league cities. The study shows that because there are no other major league franchises, Memphis could sell 112 luxury suites and 3,400 club seats. The new arena proposes 70 luxury suites and 2,700 club seats. The Andersen study puts the city 15th among league communities.

Memphis compared well in population size, but ranked lower in potential corporate support. The lack of competition made up the difference.

But with the new team and arena, local officials are asking about the future of The Pyramid, the Grizzlies' temporary home, and the Mid-South Coliseum. Both venues are jointly owned by the city and county.

Pyramid managers expect major events to shift to the new arena, leaving the 20,000-seat venue to seek other markets.

The smaller Mid-South Coliseum was already facing tough competition from the newly constructed DeSoto County Civic Center built in Mississippi. The venue lost its hockey tenant to the new building, leaving the 11,500-seat arena with a $570,000 loss last year. In 1999, it hosted just 139 events. Another study shows the arena needs up to $5 million in improvements to be competitive, but that may be moot with the new NBA venue on tap.

The 10-year-old Pyramid was built at a cost of $65 million and has been profitable for the past six years. Nearly $39 million in debt is still outstanding on the building. Its major tenant is the University of Memphis. The arena had 83 bookings last year. Both venues are managed by SMG which is studying their future potential. One possibility is to sell naming rights to the Pyramid to reduce the building's debt.

Meanwhile, a study of the Pyramid shows it would cost $192.2 million to bring it up to contemporary NBA standards. The cost led the city to propose building a new $250 million arena. The city also guaranteed the sale of 11,500 season tickets for the team.

March 29, 2001
Copyright 2000 MediaVentures

The Vancouver Grizzlies are packing their bags for a move to Memphis. However, so are the Charlotte Hornets. Unless the NBA decides to make the mid-South community a dual NBA market, something's got to give.

It's the Hornets' announcement that came as a surprise. The team has been negotiating with Charlotte city officials for a new arena, but said it would move if an agreement could not be reached soon. The team was required to tell the NBA this week if it would play in a different market. The announcement was seen as a defensive tactic rather than as a definite plan to uproot the team.

There is also talk that Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley and Hornets owners George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge would swap teams with the Hornets playing in Memphis and the Grizzlies in Charlotte.

The NBA has 120 days to review the Memphis deal and make a final decision.

Memphis feels twice blessed

Expect construction cranes to pop up in Memphis as plans begin to take shape for a new arena. It matters little to the city whether the team inside is the Grizzlies or the Hornets.

The new downtown Memphis arena would not require cash from the new team. Public money would pay the full cost, estimated at up to $250 million. The cash would come from by rebating existing sales tax money and from a tax-incremental financing (TIF) district. The TIF district must be approved by the governor who has already given his support.

Money and facilities seemed to tip the scale for Memphis. Local owners were willing to buy up to 49% of the Grizzlies and the city had a place ready for the team to play. Louisville, the other favorite contender, had investors willing to buy only 20% of the team. FexEx had also made a proposal to buy naming rights for the venue and the team. The amount was not released, but it was thought to be at least at much as the $100 million offered directly to Heisley in Louisville by Tricon Global Restaurants. Neither FedEx or Tricon would have been owners of the team.

Most of the funding for the Memphis arena is in place, but some additional money may be needed from the city and Shelby County. Officials of both governments seemed open to considering adding cash, but also cautioned that local investment should be limited. Reports say the two may be asked to provide a combined 10% to 12% of the cost. The percentage is the same as the governments invested in a new minor league ballpark.

A state senator is calling for an election on the arena financing plan, although one is not required. State Sen. Jim Kyle says it would bring unification over the use of public funds. A referendum can be called voluntarily by the city or county or by referendum petition. Voters in Nashville used the petition method to force a vote on the Titans' Adelphia Stadium funding plan which is similar to the one proposed in Memphis.

Those who put together the plan to lure the Grizzlies say an election could kill the deal. They say having financing in place without the need for an election was one of the reasons the team chose Memphis.

While those details are being worked out, the new team can look forward to playing at the University of Memphis' Pyramid. The 10-year-old building seats 20,000 and has 26 luxury suites. The university leases them for $35,000 to $65,000 per year.

The new building is outlined at 18,500 seats with 2,700 club seats and 70 luxury suites. Local officials favor the retro design used for the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, which is of similar size.

Louisville left at the alter

It was Tricon's proposal in Louisville that sparked FedEx to ante up its money in Memphis. For its trouble, Louisville is again left without an NBA team to show for its efforts. The city tried earlier to lure the Houston Rockets, but the Rockets worked out a new arena financing deal at home and did not move.

Louisville officials acknowledged they had been talking privately with the Hornets about hosting the team should the Grizzlies select Memphis. City officials say they were encouraged by NBA Commissioner David Stern who told them after the announcement that the league still had its eye on the community.

The city hoped to lure the University of Louisville into being another tenant in the arena, but even that seemed to be troublesome. While school administrators liked the idea, the coaching staff had reservations about being located downtown rather than on campus.

Louisville's proposal called for a $220 million arena funded with 30 year bonds. The yearly debt service of $12 million to $13 million would be supported by $3.5 million in arena revenue, $5 million in new tax money generated by a tax incremental financing (TIF) district created around the new downtown facility and $3. 5 million from the city's capital fund. Land for the arena would be donated by a local private investor if he is granted a minority ownership in the team.

New Orleans, Anaheim barely mentioned

Amidst the commotion in Memphis and Louisville, the names of also-rans New Orleans and Anaheim were rarely heard. New Orleans was considered an early favorite because it had a new arena ready to host the team. It also put together a list of companies and individuals ready to buy premium seats and 12,000 season tickets. What New Orleans lacked was a corporate benefactor willing to meet the $100 million ante.

Still, New Orleans officials say they expect to pick up the phone shortly and hear the Charlotte Hornets on the other end. The Hornets played an exhibition game at the New Orleans Arena this season.

A last minute offer from Anaheim also was not enough to sway the Grizzlies. Heisley looked at Arrowhead Pond, but saw that he would share a significant portion of the arena's revenue with the Walt Disney Co., owner of the Mighty Ducks. He would also be the third NBA team in the market.

Meanwhile, back in Charlotte

Charlotte may well lay claim to the title of "City of Mixed Messages." This week the Hornets:

  • Said they would move to Memphis,
  • Canceled their lease at Charlotte Coliseum,
  • Said they wanted to stay in Charlotte,
  • Trotted out drawings of a new arena they hope to build in Charlotte,
  • Said they were open to selling the team,
  • Told players the team would not be sold.

City officials tried to take the events in stride as they struggled to put together an arena financing package before a legislative deadline expires. Legislative officials have rejected some parts of the plan and have only a few weeks remaining before they adjourn.

The Hornets are pushing for a quick election on funding for a new arena. If that funding is not approved, the team plans to move. They city wanted to wait until November, but moved the date up to accommodate the team.

The city wants to hold an election June 5, but needs to come up with $3.5 million that state officials refused to fund. It is considering options to begin collecting hotel and car rental taxes sooner and delaying work on some of the projects in the capital package. The revision also cuts money promised to cover operating expenses, leaving the cultural facilities to come up with their own revenue streams.

The Charlotte election would fund a new arena, a new minor league ballpark and several cultural facilities. The city planned to provide $750,000 toward operation expenses.

A House committee this week voted 9-3 to send the election proposal to the floor for a vote. The issue is expected to get some opposition from the full House, but approval is expected.

Team officials say their Memphis announcement was only done as protection so the team would have options if funding does not come through. The team has satisfied the city that it is losing $1 million a month and needs a new arena to remain competitive.

Protection is also given as the reason for cancelling the Coliseum lease. The notification protects the team from a $20 million penalty. The team says it qualified for release from the lease because the city did not come up with an arena financing plan by Dec. 31 as promised. City officials said they were surprised that the blame was put on the city when the team could also have taken advantage of the escape clause because season ticket sales were short of a goal. The city and the team agreed in December to ignore the deadline because arena talks were underway.

Legal observers say the Hornets may have taken the position because the city missed the first deadline.

Co-owner Wooldridge has said he is willing to sell a portion of the team or do a swap with Heisley, but there is no formal offer of either to consider. Earlier reports said a group of local investors were interested in buying the Hornets. Players were told Tuesday during a game in San Antonio that neither owner intended to sell the team.

At the same time, the Hornets released drawings of their proposed five level, 20,000-seat arena. The $190 million venue would have 70 luxury suite sand 2,500 club seats, compared to the 12 suites and no club seats at the Coliseum. The suites would be priced at $100,000 to $150,000 per year, with each holding 12 to 18 fans. The floor level club seats would be priced at $3,000 to $3,500. The arena would also use co-op suites, which are a mix of club seat and suite amenities.

The Memphis Pyramid

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