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No reason to bait hook for Bass Pro

The closer you look, the more ridiculous it gets.

We want to give Bass Pro $25 million to overwhelm a key national historic site, upend an existing development plan and smother downtown waterfront green space.

In return, we will get a hunting/fishing store that is barely bigger than the Gander Mountain hunting/fishing store in Tonawanda. We will surround it with four (count 'em) new parking ramps, pockmarking the downtown streetscape and turning the store into a one-stop. We will hand development rights for nearby streets to a company whose expertise is in suburban strip malls.

Once again, a community desperate for something will settle for anything.

Bass Pro was supposed to put a flagship store -- 250,000 square feet -- in the old Aud. Good idea. It reuses a dead building, was big enough to draw crowds from parts distant and worked hand-in-hand with the nearby Erie Canal history site.

The flagship is now a cabin cruiser. At about 100,000 square feet (including space for an on-site restaurant), it is barely bigger than the 77,000-square foot Gander Mountain store that sells a lot of the same stuff. It is barely bigger than the 80,000-square foot Dick's Sporting Goods in the Walden Galleria.

It will bring little to this area that we don't already have. Not only will it not lure crowds from parts distant, which was the initial reason for getting Bass Pro, it may not divert many from the suburbs. It is no coincidence that Bass Pro executives won't estimate how many people the store would draw.

No wonder that Bass Pro President Jim Hagale was smiling at the recent news conference. Nothing is more satisfying than taking the rubes for a ride.

"They should be giving us money if they want our waterfront," said one downtown business leader, who requested anonymity to protect future dealings. "This would go right up there with all of our other screw-ups."

I don't know what degree of desperation drove Larry Quinn, head negotiator for the recently created waterfront development board. Bass Pro was ready to walk after rejecting the Aud site, then rejecting a new building on a demolished Aud site. At that point, we should have waved goodbye and looked elsewhere.

Instead, we offer Bass Pro $25 million and a prime piece of downtown waterfront. On it is the western terminus of the Erie Canal, currently being restored. A hard-fought, state-approved consensus plan was already in place. It eventually included shops and restaurants in smaller, 19th-century-style buildings, to enhance the site's historic integrity. Bass Pro would kill the plan. The only question is when the first lawsuit gets filed.

The proposed Buffalo store -- we only have a predevelopment agreement, so it is not too late to turn back -- would be smaller than the Bass Pro in suburban Toronto. It would be no bigger than the Bass Pro two hours down the Thruway in Auburn. It would be less than half as large as the proposed Bass Pro near Pittsburgh. And nothing in the agreement stops Bass Pro from building stores even closer to us. Rochester, anyone?

With Bass Pros and mirror-image Cabela's popping up like daisies -- there are now 60 stores between them -- the bloom is off the mega-hunting/fishing-store rose. Gander Mountain CEO Mark Baker, who refuses to take massive taxpayer handouts, recently hammered the rival stores.

"When you get 30, 40 or 50 of them, they become less interesting destinations," Baker told the Heartland Institute, a free-market think-tank. "Arguments for government subsidies become more unsubstantiated."

We are late to the game with the wrong idea in the wrong place -- and paying $25 million for it. Somebody, please: Stop us before we blunder again.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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