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LANDING BASS PRO
MAJOR DEVELOPMENT PROJECT COMES AT A COST, BUT IT'S WORTH THE PUBLIC INVESTMENT

It's in the net. Bass Pro is coming to downtown Buffalo as the exciting centerpiece of a multifaceted development that stands to do more for this city more quickly than any undertaking this side of the Erie Canal. It's not a quick fix for everything that's wrong with the Western New York economy, but it's good medicine, just the same.

It's not so much the jobs this project will produce. Even at a gargantuan 250,000 square feet, the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store is expected to deliver about 400 jobs -- nothing to sneeze at, certainly, but nothing on the scale of the 2,500-job Geico project announced last year. With public dollars accounting for more than half the total cost of $123 million, more than 400 retail jobs need to be on the table.

More is.

If Bass Pro's track record is any guide, the company draws customers from outside its stores' core region like a magnet draws pins, especially to its super-sized stores. Together with the 30,000-square-foot museum dedicated to the history of the Erie Canal Harbor and Great Lakes, this store is expected to draw 3 million to 5 million visitors a year to downtown Buffalo, from as much as 200 miles away.

Those shoppers, in addition to leaving money behind in Buffalo, should spur further development on the city's long-dormant waterfront while providing a shot in the arm to existing businesses and cultural outlets.

The deal to put the store in the shuttered Memorial Auditorium was announced Monday after more than three years of negotiation. And as heartening as it is to have this deal in the net, it must be said that this is one expensive net.

Of the $123 million total cost, Bass Pro is fronting at least $57 million, or 46 percent. The rest of it will come from taxpayers -- although half of that $66 million contribution will go to projects benefiting the entire harbor district and not just Bass Pro itself.

Washington will spend $31 million for highway ramps and a neighboring intramodal transportation and parking center, Albany will contribute $21 million from the money originally set aside for the defunct Adelphia project in the harbor area, and Buffalo and Erie County are on the hook for $14 million and a white elephant of a mothballed building.

The blow is softened somewhat by the fact that much of the public contribution goes for public uses, including a $16 million free-standing heritage museum as well as road work and the parking facilities that will generate some revenue for the city. But the fact is that taxpayers still are going to spend $33 million to help build a store on the waterfront and, in the process, give Bass Pro veto power over development plans for the adjoining Webster Block. Nevertheless, as long as all parties meet their obligations, this is an investment worth making.

Buffalo's dominant natural asset is its neglected waterfront. To sit on the shoreline of one of the Great Lakes is to own a resource like no other, yet for generations Buffalo has squandered this spectacular potential. Handled properly, the Bass Pro development can easily be the spark that finally sets the waterfront humming, while also accomplishing the important task of putting the deserted Aud back into use as a combination store, hotel and restaurant.

This region has had to get used to dealing with the fish-that-got-away syndrome, most recently with the Adelphia project that was to bring 1,000 jobs to downtown Buffalo, and many observers will be holding their breath until the day the first customer buys the first fishing rod. But, as the Geico project shows, Buffalo is not immune to good news.

With hard work and some public dollars, for such is the way of life in the United States, positive developments can happen even in the city of hard knocks. Bass Pro is shaping up to be among them. Nice catch.