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Government handouts for retailer raise doubts

Nancy Oakes wonders why a national retail company needs government handouts to open a store in Buffalo.

Oakes, of East Aurora, one of more than 55 attendees at a forum Tuesday where three speakers opposed the proposed Bass Pro store on the Buffalo River, said Bass Pro does not need subsidies or city-owned land to open in Western New York.

"I think Bass Pro makes money, and I think they can do it on their own," she said.

Oakes found support for her view in the remarks of David C. Ewald, a Minneapolis-based consultant invited to the forum at The Church on Delaware Avenue by North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. to give a 30-minute presentation opposing retail subsidies.

"Tax incentives are really a small factor in the decision of where to put a store," Ewald said. "We need to say 'no' to [stores], and they'll probably still do the deal."

The 100,000-square-foot, three-level Bass Pro store would stand on city-owned land as part of a $275 million public-private development dubbed "Canal Side."

Questions from the forum's audience indicated that their concerns about the Bass Pro deal varied: Some worried about small tackle shop owners and broken Bass Pro performance promises, while others worried about the historic value of the proposed Central Wharf site and the precedent of giving subsidies to retailers.

Ewald joined speakers Jim Ostrowski of the free-market advocate organization Free Buffalo, who announced the beginning of a nationwide boycott of Bass Pro -- "just like Martin Luther King would have done in the 1960s" -- and Tim Tielman of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture.

During an hourlong meeting with Buffalo Common Council's Community Development Committee earlier Tuesday, Ewald said he did not visit Buffalo to "beat up on Bass Pro."

Still, Ewald said that it is no longer realistic to expect throngs of out-of-towners to travel long distances to visit stores such as Bass Pro.

"Destination retailing is a fast-fading myth," he said.

Ewald also warned that similar projects throughout the country have failed to deliver on promised job-creation targets.

Golombek, a longtime critic of large subsidies for Bass Pro, said the city too often acts like a "desperate child" who begs people to be a friend and thinks subsidies will do the trick.

But Masten Council Member Demone A. Smith insisted that the $25 million state subsidy promised to Bass Pro will spawn greater economic benefits for the region, including millions of dollars in additional sales tax each year. Smith also questioned Ewald's credibility, since he is a lobbyist for Gander Mountain, one of Bass Pro's main competitors.

Blueprints for the multiblock mix of retail, entertainment, residential and office development were unveiled in March by Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.

Critics have argued that a public consensus was reached three years ago on a history-based plan for the site with a 12-acre park and smaller-scaled development along the wharf.

e-mail: cthompson@buffnews.com and bmeyer@buffnews.com

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