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We're bending over backwards for the Buffalo Bills.

It's time we did at least the same for the buffalo. And lions. And chimps. And, for that matter, Buffalo -- the region.

It goes beyond saving the Buffalo Zoo, the beautiful anachronism in Delaware Park.

It's about thinking big, something in small supply around here. It's a chance to take care of a few problems -- or "opportunities," as Miss Pingray called them in our fourth-grade class, and in the end making this a better place to live, a bigger draw for tourists and a magnet for private dollars on the downtown waterfront.

If we can pay a couple more cents a beer to keep Ralph Wilson happy, we ought to do at least that much for our families and our future.

The folks at the zoo went public Friday with an open secret: The zoo is on the endangered species list. It's too old, too small, too outdated. It's a relic in an age of natural habitat zoos with wide-open spaces.

As lovely as the grounds and buildings are, the sight of stressed-out tigers endlessly pacing tiny cages doesn't put smiles on faces small or large. The zoo does a lot with a little space, as shown by its animals' high birth rates and longevity. But it's a throwback to the era before we knew better.

Without changes, the zoo could lose its national accreditation, which would downgrade it to roadside attraction status. Because it's landlocked in an Olmsted park, the closest thing to sacred ground around here, what's really needed is a new zoo.

What's happening here goes beyond the zoo. The future of the downtown waterfront is as a family entertainment center and regional attraction. There's a chance for pieces to come together in a big way, if we think big.

There's talk of a children's museum -- a kids' play-and-learn space -- on the waterfront. They're popping up like weeds in communities around the country. The Science Museum, now in a too-small East Side building, is salivating over the DL&W Terminal next to the Marine Midland Arena. A new zoo makes sense in the same neighborhood.

That mix would keep visiting families busy for days. It would dwarf the minimal economic boost the Bills bring this region. Beyond that, it would mean thousands of people coming to the foot of Main Street every day. And that, not the sporadic hockey game, is what makes hotels, shops and restaurants appear.

"Maybe we need to get a cultural resource board together, to take a look at all of this," said Assemblyman Paul Tokasz, who is head of the Arts and Tourism Committee.

There's no maybe about it. It goes beyond what does or doesn't happen on the waterfront -- although the waterfront stuff can also tap federal money. There are bills to be paid for ongoing restorations of Kleinhans Music Hall, Shea's Theater and Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin complex.

Granted, a family entertainment waterfront is a big bite. It's also what helped to put Cleveland, which built a waterfront science museum and Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, back on the map.

The alternative is endlessly patching the old and obsolete.

We can't afford to keep schlepping along. In the new global rat race, regions battle for people and business. The better a place to live and work this is, the bigger stick we've got.

If we can swallow $84 million (counting the $24 million already spent) to keep the Bills for another 10 years or so, we can digest $100 million for a zoo that will be here for another century.

The county, predictably, isn't jumping to the front of the funding line. In fairness, the Bills are on the county's plate, as well as a new courthouse and maybe a new jail and convention center.

"I don't think we could step up to the plate in the near future (on a new zoo)," said Rich Tobe, the county's commissioner of environment and planning. "We're not looking to take on new burdens."

Others aren't so ready to Just Say No.

Tokasz said a sin tax could be used for new cultural buildings, not just to pad a rich sport owner's wallet.

"There's a few options," said Tokasz. "To me, an uptick or expansion of a sin tax makes sense -- maybe matching that with money from a state fund."

For the zoo, there are not a lot of choices.

They can put on a $24 million Band-Aid and be left with primitive, odoriferous buildings, meager parking and visitor-hostile winters. Besides, it's tough to encourage philanthropy when all donors get is their name on a new manhole cover.

A $50 million face-lift would mean a new building. But it leaves the zoo in the same claustrophobic space. And it would obliterate much of the current park-like setting.

A new zoo brings Buffalo into the modern world.

"I don't want to set off alarms," said zoo Director Thomas Garlock, "but if we don't do something, we might not have a zoo in 20 years. We have to get serious."

That's the choice. Think big, or think backwater.

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