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Two mega-projects with the potential to change the image of Buffalo's downtown waterfront dramatically appear to be on a parallel time lines.

If all goes according to plan, Erie Canal Harbor and conversion of the mothballed Memorial Auditorium to a Bass Pro Outdoor World store could be completed in the summer of 2007.

"Getting either one of these projects to fruition is a dream come true, but the potential to deliver both would be over the top," Mayor Anthony M. Masiello said. "I get goose bumps just thinking about it."

At a recent Buffalo Place board meeting, the mayor and downtown business leaders received an update on progress of the $46.3 million effort to redevelop Erie Canal Harbor. Thomas D. Blanchard Jr., of the Empire State Development Corp., said a supplementary environmental impact study will be completed in the next month, with construction to start in April.

Federal, state and local economic development officials, meanwhile, are holding their breath that Bass Pro executives will announce plans for a $100 million-plus store, with companion museum and hotel in the next few weeks.

Both projects have moved much more slowly than expected. Erie Canal Harbor, in the works since the early 1990s, fell off its original timetable by nearly a decade as planners reworked the blueprint because of historic preservation issues.

Efforts to lure Bass Pro to Buffalo, begun in June 2001, have gained significant momentum in the last year as the retailer floated its ideas and government planners responded with an $80 million incentive package.

"I know there are a lot of non-believers out there," Masiello said. "There are those who don't think Bass Pro will happen, and even those that do, don't grasp the enormity of the project. All I can say is they are going to wake up one morning in 2007 and say 'Holy cow, this is incredible.' "

Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corp., said he was "extremely optimistic" the Missouri-based retailer would sign a memorandum of understanding to set the blockbuster project in motion.

"We're ready, and it appears they're getting ready as well," said Gargano, whose agency is leading the charge to bring Bass Pro to Buffalo. "It's looking better all the time, and it could be imminent."

Like Masiello, Gargano said he considers Erie Canal Harbor, which sits behind the Aud, an integral part of efforts to revitalize the downtown waterfront.

"These are two magnificent projects that accomplish a great many things," he said. "As individual projects they are of a large order of magnitude, but when they are combined, they will certainly be a catalyst for so much more."

Synchronizing the two projects could help with Bass Pro's proposed $20 million Great Lakes museum at the easternmost tip of harbor land. The free-standing building would be connected to the former Aud, which is expected to house the Bass Pro store, a sports-themed restaurant and a hotel.

Matching construction timetables also could condense potential construction chaos, which would include ambitious digging and dredging along the water, while crews gut the Aud and demolish the Donovan State Office Building.

Blanchard updated the Buffalo Place board as it weighs the possibility of acting as caretaker of the 12-acre site that extends from Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Servicemen's Park to the foot of Main Street.

Keith Belanger, Buffalo Place chairman, said it would be a good fit for the non-profit agency, which provides maintenance services for Main Street businesses, in addition to its better-known role of staging the Thursday in the Square summer concert series.

"The site falls within Buffalo Place boundaries, and it's the kind of service we already provide in other parts of downtown, so if there were a dedicated revenue source to cover our costs, it's something we'd be interested in," Belanger said.

He also said the soon-to-be-established harborfront plaza and historic interpretation area could serve as a venue for large-scale concerts and events the agency sponsors.

"It could be a more cost-efficient site to stage Buffalo Rocks the Harbor and the Buffalo Bike Blast," he said. "It's a site we'd be interested in using."

But he said he would prefer to keep Thursday in the Square in Lafayette Square in the heart of downtown.


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