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Find right deal for harbor Progress on Bass Pro project is welcome, but access, aid issues need attention

Waterfront development officials ought to be very, very careful with any plans to offer Bass Pro a new waterfront site that in any way curtails the public's hard-won access to the river's edge and to views that enhance enjoyment of both the water and the new heritage-themed Erie Canal Harbor district. Without design details it's hard to tell whether a proposed new site in the center of that district's shoreline would pass muster, but no last-minute negotiations should lose sight of access and overall design issues.

The negotiations under way now are intended to meet a locally imposed deadline on landing the long delayed, never confirmed Outdoor World tourist attraction. The Bass Pro chain and Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. leaders reportedly are considering a scaled-back store that could be built on what has been called the Central Wharf portion of the heritage district or on another waterfront parcel. Plans to covert the vacant Memorial Auditorium into a Bass Pro megastore and major tourist attraction would go by the boards.

The deal must change, too. The original proposal called for the use of $35 million in public money -- about half of a larger effort that includes other harbor-area projects and infrastructure improvements -- to gut the Aud and make it ready for Bass Pro to spend $20 million of its own money on a store spectacular enough to be a destination attracting people from hundreds of miles away. If it's just going to be a large store, it doesn't warrant that level of taxpayer support. And if Bass Pro pulls out, the most important and immediate thing that has to be guarded against is the siphoning off of these dollars for projects that do not enhance downtown in a major way.

A scaled-back Bass Pro 100,000-square-foot store would still be a large building, perhaps too large for the narrow Central Wharf site -- a shoreline focal point of the Erie Canal Harbor project. Especially with the looming concrete presence of the Skyway overhead, the harbor project needs heritage-themed public open space, and it cannot be discarded lightly.

Making a large Bass Pro store look like a smaller-scale 19th century string of adjoining wharfside buildings -- a main goal of the heritage theme -- would pose design challenges, and other plots offer less conflict. There would be more space in the Webster Block just across Main Street, now a public parking lot and formerly the proposed site of the original Adelphia complex project. There may also be better options on other Erie Canal Harbor plots designated for private development.

Relocation to the Central Wharf also raises other questions, ranging from whether amending the heritage plan would reopen environmental impact studies to whether old Adelphia state aid redirected to an Aud-centered project could be used elsewhere or must remain targeted on Aud rehabilitation or demolition. All demand careful negotiations.

A Bass Pro store still would be a welcome and water-related component of waterfront renewal here, and the negotiators' frustrations with the timetable and expense of the Aud project clearly are shared by the public. Settling this issue and moving it more quickly off the drawing boards and into construction would be a major step toward reaching waterfront goals. A long-awaited signed deal would be very welcome -- provided public access and the overall vision for heritage redevelopment are preserved in the bargain.

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