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Gina Speno, general manager of the Fingerlakes Mall, admits she often stops her Saturday house cleaning to drive to the shopping center and count cars in the parking lot.

And since Bass Pro Shops opened a Sportsman's Center store in the mall last June, Speno has had a lot of cars to count.

"It's so exciting. We can fit about 3,000 vehicles in the lot, and the whole thing will be filled," Speno said. "And there are so many out-of-state license plates. It's just a dream come true."

It's a far cry from the days before Bass Pro Shops arrived and the only enclosed mall between Rochester and Syracuse was limping along, with a 44 percent vacancy rate and relying on a largely rural customer base from within a 20-mile radius.

In making a case for a Bass Pro Shops store in Buffalo, elected officials and economic development executives have forecast a store will draw upward of 3 million visitors a year to the city's waterfront. If the much smaller Bass Pro Shops store in Auburn -- one-third the size of what is to be built at the old Memorial Auditorium -- is any indicator, those expectations are on target.

"With Bass Pro open just 6 1/2 months last year, mall-wide sales were up 70 percent," Speno said. "We're signing new tenants, existing tenants are expanding, and it's all because of Bass Pro."

The Fingerlakes Mall is tiny compared to Buffalo-area shopping centers -- less than half the size of Boulevard Mall. It's also located more than 10 miles south of the New York State Thruway, forcing Bass Pro Shops customers from outside the immediate area to get off the Thruway and wind their way through the countryside.

Yet a steady stream of shoppers does just that.

While the retailer does not release specific numbers, Auburn Bass Pro Shops manager Greg Bulkley said head counts of 10,000 were the norm on winter weekends, with 20,000-plus during the warmer months.

"Until you see the store and understand what Bass Pro is all about, it's probably difficult to comprehend why people would drive hundreds of miles to visit us," Bulkley said. "All I can tell you is every time we open a store, they just keep coming."

Local economic development officials were told the Auburn store would attract at least 2 million shoppers a year and generate about $2 million in sales tax revenues.

David C. Miller, Cayuga County's director of planning and economic development, said sales tax receipts are up dramatically, but a detailed analysis will be needed to know how much to attribute to Bass Pro Shops and how much is tied to the soaring price of gasoline, which is also tallied in the retail tax category.

"I can't give you hard numbers to say Bass Pro is good for Cayuga County, but I can tell you anecdotally that the impact has been fantastic," Miller said.

The anecdotal evidence includes: new tenant signings in the mall, including Central New York's only Steve & Barry's University Sportswear store; the announcement of an $18 million hotel/restaurant/conference center project for a site adjacent to the shopping center; plans for two national restaurant chains to build on another nearby parcel; and preliminary permits issued for a big-box retail center across the street from the mall.

Last year, those same parcels were leased to farmers to plant corn, Miller said.

A sense of pride

"This is just remarkable for us," Miller said. "We're a small community where nothing much had been happening, so this is just blockbuster."

The arrival of Bass Pro Shops also has had a non-tangible impact: local pride.

"Like a lot of upstate communities, we've maybe had a negative view of ourselves," the planning and development chief said. "The Bass Pro has gone a long way to change that. The average citizen is feeling good that something neat is happening here."

So far, it appears the $450,000 in cash contributed by Empire State Development Corp. and Cayuga County's $18 million payment-in-lieu-of-taxes incentive was money well spent to assist Bass Pro Shops in creating the $12 million store, he said.

Q. Daniels, corporate director of sales and marketing for Charter One Hotels and Resorts, which owns Holiday Inns in Auburn and nearby Waterloo, said those hotels have benefited from Bass Pro shoppers.

"We've seen a definite increase in room business when they have events, like fishing tournaments and seminars," Daniels said, noting that Web pages for both hotels now include links to Bass Pro Shops.

It's impossible to tell from its new Adirondack lodge-style facade that the Auburn Bass Pro Shops was once a Sears Roebuck & Co. store. The rustic look continues on the interior, where a two-story foyer outfitted with a massive, working fireplace fashioned from locally quarried boulders is flanked by a collection of Adirondack-style furniture.

A huge glass chandelier graces the timbered ceiling, and the lodge ambience is continued with an impressive array of trophy deer, moose, cougar and black bear mounts.

Beyond the entry turnstiles, the outdoorsy eye candy continues nonstop.

Hand-painted murals -- depicting local lakeshore scenes, maps of the Finger Lakes and other Central New York views -- give the store a sense of place rarely, if ever, visible in a retail venue.

Full-sized duck blinds, tree stands, boats and even a small plane jut out of walls and dangle from the rafters. A 1945 Chevy pickup truck, purchased locally and shipped to Bass Pro Shops headquarters in Missouri for restoration, is parked in the middle of the apparel department, loaded with T-shirts and caps.

"No two stores are alike. Every store is tied to its location," Bulkley said. "We take what's outside and bring it inside. We want to make people say, 'Wow.' "

At the Auburn store, a flock of indigenous waterfowl flies above the retail floor, evoking the nearby Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. A 22,000-gallon tank stocked with native fish attracts shoppers, some of whom stand or sit for an hour or more watching the trout, bass and muskies swim past.

In addition to stuffed big game, an array of smaller woodland creatures and birds -- turkeys, pheasants, squirrels, chipmunks and skunks -- graces displays of guns, bows, apparel, camping gear and food.

Anthony and Olivia Calabrese, retirees from Lyons, drove 35 miles from their home to make their first visit.

"We really weren't sure what it was all about, but it's just fabulous," Olivia Calabrese said. "Everything is so attractive."

Carl Brown, of Fairfax Station, Va., strolled through the store with his wife, Lisa Knock, his mother-in-law, and a pair of 10-week-old Belgian Malinois puppies. (Bass Pro Shops is a dog-friendly store, with leashed canines always welcome.)

'Over the top'

In Syracuse for a dog show, the avid fisherman spotted a Bass Pro Shops billboard along the Thruway and made a beeline for it.

"I'm overwhelmed. The selection is over the top, and the bathrooms are spotless," Brown said, adding that this first visit was a "scouting mission" and he would be back the next day for some serious shopping.

The ladies, however, did not pass up the opportunity to buy. Apparel, items from the home and garden department, and food from Uncle Buck's pantry filled their carts.

Bass Pro Shops employee Colleen Itara admitted she knew nothing about the retailer when she put in her application, but she's enjoyed the past 10 months as a sales associate, especially dealing with out-of-towners.

"I've met people from all over the country, even a family from France," Itara said. "This store has really put us on the map."


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