Eleventh-hour negotiations to lure Bass Pro Shops to the Buffalo waterfront are now focused on alternative locations to the idle Memorial Auditorium.
At the top of list is the historic Central Wharf, across Scott Street from the Aud, directly on the Buffalo River. The approximately 1.5-acre site, adjacent to the recently rewatered Commercial Slip, is being eyed for a store that would resemble an original, early 1800s commercial structure.
"It's a whole new deal and a whole new approach," said a source close to the negotiations who requested anonymity. "Stepping away from the Aud makes things a lot less complicated and potentially less expensive."
As the clock ticks down to a Tuesday deadline to reach a deal, local negotiators and the retailer are said to be "working aggressively" to reach a binding agreement that commits Bass Pro to Buffalo.
Larry Quinn, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. vice chairman, who is leading Bass Pro negotiations, confirmed the parties are looking beyond the Aud to get a deal.
"We're considering a number of different options, and there's dialogue going on. We're trying to come up with something that works," Quinn said. "Where it will lead, I just can't tell you."
Mayor Byron W. Brown declined to comment Thursday, but a senior staff member said Brown has been briefed on a variety of development options in recent days, including the Central Wharf location.
Another source familiar with the talks said additional sites in the inner harbor neighborhood also are being eyed, but the Central Wharf parcel, currently earmarked to become public green space, holds the most promise.
"It's right on the water and would directly integrate Bass Pro with the bigger effort to invigorate the Erie Canal Harbor. It would be a great mix of the past and the future," the source said.
While the Central Wharf property requires no cleanup or demolition, its use as a retail footprint flies in the face of existing plans to create public access on the city-owned historic site. Slated to be landscaped with a mix of trees, shrubs, open lawn and an iris garden this spring, it is part of the ongoing $49 million effort to re-establish the 12.5-acre Erie Canal Harbor site.
That project, which includes reopening the 184-year-old Commercial Slip and unearthing original Erie Canal building foundations, is slated for completion in October.
In mid-December the harbor development panel set a 30-day deadline to either reach a deal with Bass Pro, or initiate talks with other retailers to anchor a sweeping, $200 million Inner Harbor revitalization effort dubbed "Canal Side."
The parties were expected to get down to business on a plan that called for $35 million in public funds to be used to gut and remediate the Aud, setting the stage for Bass Pro to create a 160,000-square-foot, $20 million store.
The current discussions on alternatives to the Aud are said to have resulted from frustration with the huge expense and lengthy timetable for either gutting the Aud or tearing it down. No cost estimates for a Central Wharf store were available, but sources said the shallow, rectangular riverfront site will force a smaller store than previously proposed, probably in the 100,000- to 125,000-square-foot range.
Current talks, which leave the Aud out of the Bass Pro equation, are a dramatic departure from discussions dating back to 2001 that have featured the former sports arena as the linchpin in redevelopment efforts. Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris traveled to Buffalo as recently as October to re-evaluate the Aud's potential..