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Bring Bass Pro to Buffalo Path to harbor development success would be slower, riskier without anchor

Buffalo is hosting an elite national bass tournament this weekend, but the biggest fish in this end of Lake Erie still proves elusive. Bass Pro is not yet on the waterfront. It should be.

The outdoor chain's proposed destination store is the best chance to spur redevelopment, including the kind of small-scale retail and restaurant businesses sought by preservationists and included in a master plan that assumed an even larger Bass Pro store in a reused Memorial Auditorium. A viable redevelopment effort, the kind that makes critically important contributions to the city economy and helps rebuild an eroded tax base, needs an attractor, a destination that will bring people to Canal Side and lessen the business risks for smaller enterprises. Bass Pro is the only fish currently in that pond.

The heritage and history theme demanded by the public for Buffalo's waterfront is important, particularly in the smaller footprint of the original Erie Canal Harbor project, now only part of a Canal Side concept that also includes the Webster Block and the Aud and Donovan building demolition sites. Street layout, street "furniture" and building designs, bolstered by interpretive displays and signage, must meet that demand. But economics plays a role in this huge public and private investment, as well. Buffalo has a past. It needs a future.

There may yet be room for further compromise. The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., departing chairman Anthony H. Gioia and Rep. Brian Higgins, in recent days, have signaled that the currently proposed Central Wharf site for Bass Pro is not a done deal, and there may yet be flexibility in location. That's good news. If such talks indeed are under way, Bass Pro would do well to consider retaining the historic period design envisioned for its building while evaluating another site at the edge of the district, which could have easier access to parking and slips with more protected boat display space. As Bass Pro critics also would be wise to note, good plans evolve when new ideas emerge.

At $25 million, the public subsidy involved in this effort indeed is large, and must be carefully considered. But it is an investment, not a gift. The $25 million would be used to construct a publicly-owned building, with Bass Pro funding the interior and paying $310,000 a year in common use fees -- primarily to support an adjoining museum -- instead of rent. The government also would get back an estimated $3 million per year in sales tax revenues.

The real lure for Bass Pro here is not the subsidy, it's the market -- a strong one for hunting, fishing and camping, located on a world-class fishery. But subsidies have become the norm, as both Bass Pro and Cabela's expand rapidly in competition for a still-fragmented national market, and cities seek destination stores (Nordstrom's and other types of chains do much the same).

Gander Mountain, a trailing mid-size competitor that until recently also accepted subsidies, has claimed that eight recent Bass Pro stores drew at least $209 million in subsidies -- an average of about $26 million. News reports cover a wider range. Cabela's drew subsidies of $61 million near San Antonio, $23.5 million in a Chicago suburb, $18 million in New Hampshire. Bass Pro anchors a Missouri development that drew a $70 million subsidy. In Arizona -- Arizona! -- Bass Pro anchors a Mesa development with an $83 million subsidy, while nearby in Glendale Cabela's drew $16.7 million in support.

The elected officials who represent the public bear responsibility for three basic questions -- is this a good financial deal for Buffalo, would the private sector do this on its own, and does it fit the retail/history/entertainment concept adopted for the harborfront. The answer to the first is yes, the answer to the second is no, and the answer to the third has proven most elusive.

The preservation card has been overplayed. The harbor site, which started out a blank, has little to actually preserve, so what is envisioned even by ardent preservationists is mostly reconstruction. Here's what's been built so far: a reconstructed Commercial Slip, in its authentic location, that approximates the look of an original waterway more roughly built and widened periodically; a military museum building that approximates the look of the district's industrial architecture on two sides; and a truss bridge slightly altered from authentic reproduction for safety reasons.

For nay-sayers to pretend otherwise is nonsense. It also is nonsense to pretend a large riverfront open plaza fits a "do the real thing" theme, because -- as good and attractive as a public and performance place would be now -- it would have been rejected by the 19th century as a waste of good wharf space. Ironically, some of the voices raised now in its defense were raised in objection when such a plaza was proposed in the original Empire State Development Corp. concept plan.

The plaza still would be a waterfront plus. So would a period Wharf reconstruction for Bass Pro. Both public and private discussions that could lead to both can and should continue, through understandably closed business meetings and the open public input opportunities in the environmental review process. But it's also worth remembering that while Buffalo can, indeed, block every project that comes along and still expect things to change, it can't expect them to change for the better.

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