I wish the scent of desperation was not so heavy in the air. I wish that the last 50 years had been better for Buffalo. I wish that businesses had not closed, that people had not left, that family after family had not been split because its heart was here but the jobs were elsewhere.
I wish it for its own sake. And I wish it because it would stop us from making moves born more of panic than planning. We are so desperate for something, we will lurch at anything.
A guy connected to Gander Mountain, the hunting/fishing retail chain, came to town Tuesday. Dave Ewald told city lawmakers and a community gathering what we should already know: Think twice before throwing tens of millions of tax dollars at Bass Pro (or at its retail twin, Cabela's). The more stores Bass Pro and Cabela's build, the less of an attraction each one becomes.
Gander Mountain competes with Bass Pro and Cabela's, so Ewald has an agenda. But Gander Mountain does not take the huge handouts the others do, mainly because its CEO believes in free markets.
"Communities get swept up in this [Bass Pro] fervor," said Ewald, "because they want to get their swagger back."
It sounds a lot like Buffalo. And Ewald does not know the half of it.
The proposal for a big-box Bass Pro on the historic Erie Canal site, near the old Aud, is wrong for a lot of reasons:
*It undercuts a hard-fought, citizen-shaped, history-based plan already in progress.
*It gives us a watered-down version of the megastore that was supposed to come to the vacant Aud. At barely 100,000 square feet, it will be hardly bigger than the 77,000-square-foot Gander Mountain store we already have.
*It kills one of our limited natural assets -- the heritage tourism potential of the canal's definitive historic site. "The decision-making process has gone completely off-track," said Michael Tomlan, head of Cornell University's program in historic preservation planning. "A big-box retailer does not do justice to the historic nature of the site."
*It ignores the history plan's call for smaller-scale development in 19th century-style buildings that would create a "canal village" attraction.
*It displaces the planned public/festival space that downtown needs.
*It violates waterfront development rules that have worked from Manhattan's Battery Park to Milwaukee: Create public access and green space, which leads to step-by-step development without huge taxpayer handouts.
*It ignores nearby alternatives for a Bass Pro store, off the history site.
*It brings a mall-style model to a city waterfront, with four (count 'em) parking ramps within a block of the proposed store. It seems to me we already tried, in an overreaction to suburban flight, to bring a suburban model to downtown. It is called Main Place Mall, the retail-comatose monolith on Main Street.
*And, grimmest of ironies, we may spend -- depending on how you add it -- between $25 million and $95 million taxpayer dollars on a Bass Pro development that may hurt more than it helps us.
The recently created Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., led by Sabres executive Larry Quinn, cut the proposed Bass Pro deal behind closed doors. It undercut a history-based, public-shaped plan not just in place, but in progress.
"I have a big problem with the process," said Buffalo Common Council Member Mike LoCurto. "We have a plan done with community input, then this [development corporation] board overrides it."
The arrogance is overwhelming. The desperation is palpable.
It must be Buffalo.