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The trophy catch wasn't landed until Monday, but the bait to land a Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World for Buffalo was first cast years ago in a series of conversations between two fishing buddies.

Johnny Morris, founder and chairman of Bass Pro Shops, has heard an ocean of upbeat words about Buffalo and its charms from his Florida neighbor and fellow fishing enthusiast, Bob Rich Jr., president of Buffalo-based Rich Products.

"He got me up here for a visit," Morris recalled. "And I was really impressed with the beauty of the area and Lake Erie."

Rich's late-1990s hometown tour also included downtown Buffalo and a drive past the dormant Memorial Auditorium.

"Johnny spotted the building and asked me what it was. It sparked his imagination. You could almost hear the wheels turning in his head," Rich recalled about Morris' first look at the neglected building now poised to become the third-largest store in the Bass Pro chain.

At that time, the Missouri retailer had less than a dozen stores and hadn't yet drawn a bead on the Northeastern United States, but, according to Rich, Morris made a mental note about the Aud for future use.

"That's Johnny. He can see the beauty and artistry in something that other people don't even notice," Rich said. "That's why his stores are so innovative and no two are the same."

A few years later, when Morris got his first look at the interior of the cavernous sports arena, the Bass Pro chief was not disappointed with what he saw.

"I remember when I walked in there with the mayor I could almost hear the crowds screaming and feel the history of the place," Morris said.

"As a retailer, I could imagine the grand space, with its 100-foot ceilings, as an incredible store with one of the Great Lakes right at its front door to test boats and do fishing tours. Man, it was just awesome."

Passionate about bass fishing from his youth, Morris never set out to captain what has grown to be the fifth-largest seller of sporting goods in the United States. In fact, Morris would have been thrilled to spend his days on the professional bass tournament circuit, which he first joined in 1970.

According to Rich, who included a chapter on Morris in his 2001 book "Fish Fights," it was a lecture from his father about finding a real career that gave Morris the idea of selling fishing gear. With a $10,000 loan from his dad, he bought a U-Haul's worth of lures to sell at the family's liquor store, and a retail legend was born.

As Bass Pro continued to add stores, Rich continued to pepper his conversations with Morris about the virtues of Buffalo. In 2001, he flew Mayor Anthony M. Masiello to the company's flagship store in Springfield, Mo., to spark his interest in Bass Pro, a trip that wowed the mayor and kicked off Masiello's public quest to reel in the sporting goods giant.

Despite his continued interest in the Aud and the growing possibility of public dollars to upgrade access and infrastructure to the urban waterfront site, Morris still wasn't willing to make the leap. But federal, state and local leaders refused to give up on having the Bass Pro founder fulfill his dream.

Trips to Buffalo in 2003 and 2004 finally took the project off the back burner, and lengthy negotiations with economic development officials convinced Morris that the affinity he felt in his heart for the Buffalo site also made business sense.

"A lot of retailers would shy away from all this," Morris conceded. "It will take a lot of time and energy, but when its done, it could top everything else we've done."

Early Monday morning, before the news conference officially announcing the store and related projects, Morris went out for a run through downtown Buffalo and made a point of taking a lap around the Aud.

"I just wanted to go by there for some inspiration, and I fell for it all over again," Morris said.


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