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Bass Pro and history: a messy mix

Bass Pro may want to rebuild the historic Central Wharf and put its store in the replica 19th century buildings. Working title: History Meets Sporting Goods Megastore.

Can it be done? Maybe. Will it work? I have doubts.

After two years of trying to fit Bass Pro into the old Aud, or knock it down and build anew, we got Plan C: a smaller Bass Pro on the Erie Canal Harbor historic site. The old Central Wharf is now public space next to the newly excavated Commercial Slip -- the canal's western terminus -- and uncovered building foundations and cobblestone streets.

The Central Wharf in the mid-1800s was a commercial hub. At water's edge were multi-storied, big-windowed brick buildings -- now long gone.

Bass Pro may want to bring the structures back, inspired by an illustration of the 1858 Wharf in all its multi-building splendor. Larry Quinn, of our local waterfront board, said that Bass Pro CEO Johnny Morris "was blown away by it."

It may sound better than it really is. The plan for the historic area after the Commercial Slip was excavated included public space and 19th century-style buildings, for small shops, offices and restaurants. Now Morris reportedly wants to replicate the old buildings -- or, actually, the outer shells -- and fill them with a megastore.

Tim Tielman, the preservationist and urban design expert, said Bass Pro doesn't work inside a pseudo-historic shell. "It is putting a big-box store in an artificial historic covering, a fake facade," said Tielman. "It's a false representation of history that will mislead and disappoint visitors. It will undermine the goal of a revitalized canal district."

Tielman isn't anti-Bass Pro or anti-business. He is all for rebuilding the Central Wharf -- if the buildings hold small stores, offices and restaurants, as they historically did. That is far different than old-style facades around a big-box monolith.

Tielman suggested that the nearby DL&W Terminal -- a big building on the water, with open interior space and adjacent parking -- is a more natural fit for Bass Pro.

The last thing we need amid old canal walls, resurrected cobblestone streets and exposed building ruins is something that feels fake. Beyond that, the ongoing Bass Pro-or-bust saga feels like we're making it up as we go along, which doesn't inspire confidence.

Right now, putting Bass Pro on a rebuilt Central Wharf is still talk. Questions include cost, space, how many taxpayer dollars -- if any -- it should take and whether big-box retail fits on a historic waterfront site.

On the plus side, it is at least an attempt to mix commerce and history. Most of the parking would be blocks away, because there is no room (or place) for a megaramp at the historic site. That puts feet on the street -- just like in a real city.

The store would be smaller than Aud size -- but still as big as a Wegmans.

"It fits the scale of [the development] we want [in the inner harbor]," said Quinn. "Whereas a store the size of the Aud dwarfs all the other [buildings]."

A Bass Pro near the old Aud may be the right idea -- but the Central Wharf is the wrong place.

Picture Manhattan's South Street Seaport or Fell's Point in Baltimore's old waterfront district. With their cobblestone streets and 19th century buildings filled with stores, restaurants and offices, you feel like you've stepped back in time.

That is how people need to feel when they come to Erie Canal Harbor. I question whether a Bass Pro megastore inside a 19th century-style facade fits the mission.

The hunting-and-fishing megastore thinks it can rebuild history. The risk is it will feel more like a chain-store imitation than the real thing.

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