In what Gov. George E. Pataki billed as "one of the most important announcements in the City of Buffalo in decades," Bass Pro Shops executives Monday confirmed their plans to locate a massive Outdoor World store in Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium.
"When Bass Pro comes to town, they don't just open a store -- they change that town," Pataki said at a news conference detailing the long-pursued business and much-anticipated announcement.
And that's exactly why federal, state and local officials have spent the past 3 1/2 years courting the retailer, which has a solid track record of luring shoppers by the millions.
The proposed $123 million project, set to open in 2007, will include a 250,000-square-foot sporting goods megastore, a hotel with more than 100 rooms, a restaurant, museum and combination parking garage/transportation center. It will be funded through $66 million in public funds and a minimum $57 million investment by Bass Pro.
"This is big, even by our standards," said Johnny Morris, Bass Pro chairman and founder, who called the mothballed Aud "the biggest diamond in the rough you'd ever imagine."
Bass Pro, which operates 25 stores around the country and has 15 more in development, generally builds from scratch on suburban tracts, so he said the Aud presents both opportunities and challenges.
"Every time I come here and see the Aud, I get excited all over again," Morris said. "It's a grand building with a lot of character, and it has Lake Erie right at its doorstep. But it's a little different for us because it's in the middle of a downtown. It's not an easy project, but it's going to be worth the effort."
The Bass Pro executive also knows the community will be closely monitoring the project, not only for the success of the store but for its ability to be a catalyst for development of the Erie Canal Harbor Entertainment District.
"We know there are a lot of high expectations, and we'll do our best to build, operate and staff the finest regional sporting goods store that we possibly can," Morris said.
He said that by acting as a draw for out-of-town and local visitors, the unique store will help the area's tourism agenda while also bringing new life to the waterfront.
"A point of difference in our stores, compared to other retailers, is that we become a destination," Morris said. "People come visit us and maybe shop other kinds of stores, go to restaurants, stay overnight and go to filling stations. If we can create a draw that leads other businesses to want to locate nearby, it's a nice side benefit."
Mayor Anthony M. Masiello describes Bass Pro as the "ultimate catalyst."
"They bring people, they bring sales tax dollars, and they bring hope," he said. "For so long we've been looking for something to jump-start inner harbor development, and now we've got the real deal."
Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra said that if Bass Pro can attract the 3 million to 5 million shoppers a year it is projecting, it will give a major boost to ongoing efforts to develop the inner and outer harbors.
"This is the hook that our waterfront needs to help reel in other developers to Western New York," Giambra said.
Thomas A. Kucharski, president of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, said the Bass Pro deal rates up there with last year's announcement that Geico is bringing a regional service center to Amherst.
"It's a head turner," Kucharski said. "When someone asks me what's new in Buffalo and I say, 'Well, we're getting the third-largest Bass Pro in the country,' it makes a very, very positive impression. It opens up a lot of doors when you can say you got Geico and Bass Pro and then start talking about the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and what's happening with downtown housing. Momentum, momentum, momentum."
Landing Bass Pro also means big things for local tourism efforts.
Richard Geiger, president of the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau, is convinced the Bass Pro project and related developments will be a powerful magnet to attract new visitors. He predicted many tourists who visit Niagara Falls will make side trips to downtown Buffalo.
"For the first time, we will have a nationally recognized tourist attraction," he said.
Larry Quinn, a downtown developer and managing partner of the Buffalo Sabres, said he's confident the project, which relies heavily on public funding, will pay hefty dividends. Quinn, a former city community development commissioner, stressed that the public funds will be used for infrastructure work and other improvements that also will benefit future projects.
"People need to understand we're transforming an industrial waterfront into a commercial waterfront, and it ain't going to be cheap," he said. "But in the final analysis, I think this will be a great deal for taxpayers."
But Buffalo attorney James Ostrowski dismissed the upbeat assessments as nothing more than "spin" by the region's business elite. Ostrowski, who recently formed a citizen-based think tank called Free Buffalo, branded the Bass Pro deal "corporate welfare."
He claimed the $66 million in public funding will artificially subsidize jobs that might disappear without future public handouts.
"It's a great deal for the people on the inside, but it's definitely not a great deal for the taxpayers," Ostrowski said.
He called Monday's elaborate news conference a "big show" and said he resents that officials are making it sound as if all issues have been resolved.
"This is being presented as a fait accompli," he said. "I guess we're all supposed to wait for the unpleasant details to trickle out later."
News Staff Reporter Brian Meyer contributed to this article.