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Bass Pro gets 30 days to make a deal Ultimatum comes as $200 million plan is unveiled for waterfront development

One way or another, Buffalo's long courtship of Bass Pro Shops will be over in the next month.

Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. announced Monday it is giving the retailer 30 days to decide whether it wants to open a store in Buffalo.

"Obviously, we're all frustrated that we still don't have a deal," said Mayor Byron W. Brown, who said local planners have put a "tremendous" offer on the table to land a Bass Pro store in a retrofitted Memorial Auditorium. "If this can't be wrapped up in 30 days, then we need to move on and look at other options."

Buffalo Sabres Managing Partner Larry Quinn, the panel's vice chairman and chief negotiator, called the deadline "absolutely appropriate."

"We're finally at the point in this process where we know each other's positions. They need to run the numbers and decide if they want to do the deal or not," Quinn said.

The current offer to Bass Pro would see the state-sanctioned development corporation spend $35 million to gut the Aud and remove environmental hazards, then install electrical, plumbing and heating systems to make it ready to be turned into a store. Bass Pro would spend $20 million to create a multilevel store featuring an indoor creek and pond.

The "fish or cut bait" ultimatum, which caps efforts to woo Bass Pro dating back to July 2001, came on the heels of several broadcast media reports that the retailer had broken off talks with local planners.

"Let's not mischaracterize the relationship . . . this isn't the Cuban Missile Crisis," Quinn joked, regarding reports that contract talks are irrevocably off track.

But he acknowledged the outcome remains uncertain. "I've been through enough negotiations to know there are highs and lows, and sometimes you need to take a break to digest what's in front of you. I hope they come to their senses," Quinn added.

Bass Pro spokesman Larry Whiteley declined to comment on the 30-day deadline but did say the lines of communication remain open.

"Discussions will continue, and we'll see what happens," Whiteley said.

The development panel's ultimatum came as it unveiled a sweeping waterfront development plan dubbed "Canal Side." The $200 million plan, which was drawn with the Bass Pro store as its anchor tenant, was pitched as "alive and well" even if the retail chain doesn't sign on.

"I want to emphasize in the strongest possible terms that the development of Canal Side is not dependent on whether or not Bass Pro decides to accept the deal we are offering," said development panel chairman Anthony Gioia.

He said the 2-year-old group originally focused on a single element -- signing Bass Pro for a store in the Aud -- but the effort evolved into a neighborhoodwide strategy that is not tied to a specific tenant.

"We still hope it's Bass Pro, but if not, we have plenty of other candidates, and we have the plans and resources to attract them," Gioia added.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said the nearly completed Erie Canal Harbor project, which includes the rewatered historic Commercial Slip, also is a factor that will drive development.

"Buffalo once was a great waterfront city, and it will be a great waterfront city once again," Higgins said.

A key link between the past and future is an Erie Canal-themed museum that is planned for a site across the street from the Aud, next to the slip and ruins of original canal-era buildings.

Benderson Development Co. is poised to join the effort as Canal Side's private-sector partner, overseeing the construction and acquiring tenants for nearly a dozen new retail, hotel, entertainment and residential sites to be built adjacent to the Aud and lining Lower Main Street.

Benderson, now based in Florida, is expected to invest about $60 million to construct new, mixed-use buildings on the current site of the Donovan State Office Building and the Webster Block, located directly in front of HSBC Arena. Other features of the development blueprint include: a 1,000-car parking ramp with a "welcome center" across the street from the Commercial Slip next to Marine Drive Apartments; a new harbor/marina at the foot of Main Street; and a 250-room hotel at the southwest corner of Washington and Scott streets.

The development panel plans to take action next month to initiate the project, ranging from an environmental impact study to hiring architects.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com1

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