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Standing in the middle of a row of power-suited politicians Monday, Johnny Morris looked like the last guy who might have a billion dollars in his pocket. Mr. Bass Pro was all aw-shucks and shy smile, dressed in casual shirt open at the collar and khaki pants.

Amid the photo-op political fanatics in the grab-some-credit feeding frenzy, the down-home Morris seemed meek and a little nervous, like the guy parking the politicians' cars instead of a homespun retail genius.

Friends say that beneath the genuinely shy and humble exterior lies a talent for envisioning possibilities. All I know is Morris either has it all figured out, or he just pulled a $123 million fast one on the guys in the suits.

Bass Pro is coming to downtown, presumably to save us. Will it? I don't know. It worked everyplace else. But Buffalo isn't everyplace else. The usual rules don't apply.

Morris is from Missouri, the Show-Me State. But Buffalo is the center of the I'll Believe It When I See It universe.

Buffalo's carcass is riddled with silver bullets. A new downtown arena didn't save us, Adelphia never came, E-Zone was 6 feet under before it got off the ground, and Geico's new jobs don't nearly balance the work we've lost. Beyond that, we have enough never-done waterfront plans to fill a wing at the downtown library.

Now they say we've found salvation, and it's not the face of Jesus in an apple turnover but a steroid-pumped bait-and-tackle shop.

Some people think Bass Pro is the greatest thing since the pop-top beer can. Judging by the crowds who come, it may be.

"Our children and grandchildren will look back on this day," said State Sen. Dale Volker, "and say, 'There was the turning point.' "

Maybe he's right. If Bass Pro does half of what the politicians claim it will, it's worth the 66 million taxpayer dollars -- mainly from Washington and Albany -- that feed it. It will give us the big, family-friendly attraction we've never had, to go with the entertainment district at Chippewa.

I don't know a rod from a reel. When Morris, in his moment at the microphone, mentioned the Bassmaster Classic, to me he might as well have been speaking Portuguese. But I don't need an interpreter to understand what 400 jobs and 10,000 people coming to the foot of Main Street every day would mean to this city. That's the promise Bass Pro brings.

If it works, it brings people to the downtown waterfront -- from tourists heading to Niagara Falls to the curious within a couple of hundred miles to suburbanites. It helps Buffalo book conventions and gives visitors something to do when the meetings end. It revives the comatose Cobblestone District a few blocks away, lures other businesses and brings an Erie Canal/Great Lakes Museum to the historic ground at the Aud's back door.

With the promise comes questions: Will visitors do more than shop, grab lunch and drive home? Does the guy buying a fishing rod care about the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Frank Lloyd Wright buildings or other stuff we have? By creating a retail/entertainment center at the foot of Main, will we spread ourselves too thin and suck life out of downtown? Will Bass Pro be to this decade what aquariums were to the '80s -- the "oh wow" that, as city after city got one, turned into a "so what"?

Like everybody else, I have my fingers crossed. We've been hurting for years. The downtown waterfront has been all potential and no payoff. There's no such thing as a sure thing. But there's no doubt we need something.

I don't hunt, fish or claim to understand Johnny Morris. But if this works, we're all speaking the same language.

Bob DiCesare says Bass Pro will showcase WNY's great resources. Page D1


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