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$200 million inner harbor plan ready

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. has drafted a $200 million blueprint to bring myriad retail, residential, hospitality and entertainment venues to Buffalo's inner harbor -- a plan billed as viable with or without Bass Pro Shops.

While a 200,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store, located in the idle Memorial Auditorium, is the centerpiece of the proposal, a development panel representative said the plan doesn't rely on signing a deal with the long-sought retailer.

"This was developed with the support and input of Bass Pro, but it can be done without Bass Pro," said Larry Quinn, vice chairman of the state-sanctioned group charged with overseeing revitalization of the city's inner and outer harbors.

"As optimistic as I am about reaching a deal with them, if for some reason that doesn't happen, this plan is still alive. We believe strongly in this plan and what it means for Buffalo's future."

In addition to converting the Aud to a retail site for Bass Pro, the development proposal -- dubbed "Canal Side" -- also calls for creation of another half million square feet of related commercial development, concentrated on the current site of the Donovan State Office Building and the Webster Block directly in front of HSBC Arena.

More new construction would dot the neighborhood, including an Erie Canal/Great Lakes-themed museum, a marketplace and a waterfront terrace. The combined square footage of the proposed retail, hotel, entertainment and public buildings would be comparable in size to one-half of Walden Galleria.

Mayor Byron W. Brown said the blueprint moves waterfront development in the right direction.

"My administration has been pushing for an intelligent and realistic plan that will keep waterfront development moving forward. This document builds on past ideas but also has vision for the future," Brown said.

Both Brown and Quinn said the development strategy is also backed by something earlier plans have lacked -- plenty of seed money.

"We have millions in local, state, federal and now New York Power Authority money earmarked for the Buffalo waterfront. The goal is use those funds and this plan to entice private investment that will far exceed public contributions," Brown said.

Benderson Development Co., a Buffalo-born company now with headquarters in Florida, has been selected by Bass Pro to build and lease the mixed-use commercial buildings and will likely lead that wave of private investment.

The company, the nation's 20th largest commercial development firm, would be in charge of the planned retail, office, hotel and parking components. Benderson is expected to invest as much as $60 million to create a variety of privately owned commercial space that would be added to the local property tax base.

At this time, the planners have identified more than $75 million from various governmental sources that is available to jump-start the waterfront revitalization effort.

The Erie Canal Harbor Development panel is expected to unveil the multifaceted proposal officially at today's board meeting, the first it has held since last spring. Physical work on several elements could start in 2007, with the full slate of stores, restaurants, apartments, historic venues and improved public access to the waterfront complete by the end of 2009.

"This is an action plan, not something to talk about for five years and then toss on a shelf," Quinn added.

Along those same lines, Quinn said planners cannot negotiate indefinitely with Bass Pro.

"I would love to say we have them signed, but at this moment we don't, despite enormous effort on both sides," he said. "Frankly, there's not a lot of time left for them to make a decision."

Quinn declined to comment on whether he has a drop-dead date in mind to begin shopping the center stage of the waterfront development to other high-profile retailers.

As currently planned, the public development corporation would spend $45 million to prepare the idle Aud for build-out as a huge Bass Pro store. That price tag includes removal of asbestos and mold and installation of basic electrical, plumbing and heating services. A 150-car parking lot will be created in the basement.

Bass Pro estimates it will spend $20 million of its own money to create a multilevel store with extensive water features throughout, including a simulated creek and pond.

"There will be some reshuffling of money we have in hand, but we want people to understand that we are not giving Bass Pro any more money than previously committed," Quinn said. "We have $35 million. That hasn't changed."

The outdoor store would occupy about three-quarters of the cavernous sports arena. An as-yet-undetermined retailer will share the Aud with the seller of outdoor gear, utilizing the north end of the building. The $10 million cost of preparing that space for build-out would be repaid through future rent payments.

Quinn acknowledged local planners and the retailer seriously weighed the option of tearing down the Aud to create a shovel-ready site for Bass Pro. But in the end, Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris could not shake his original vision of reinventing the local landmark.

Other key elements include:

* New, mixed-use commercial buildings on the Donovan State Office Building site and the Webster Block, incorporating retail, housing and 1,000 parking spaces.

* A 250-room hotel on the southwest corner of Washington and Scott streets.

* A Great Lakes/Erie Canal-themed museum and marketplace stretching along the west side of Main Street from the Aud to the Niagara River shoreline.

* A 1,000-vehicle parking garage/visitors center next to Marine Drive Apartments that includes covered parking.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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