About 100 people attempted Wednesday night to bridge differences in the debate over whether a Bass Pro store should be a part of the Erie Canal Harbor project.
The forum, sponsored by the Western New York Coalition for Progress and WNYMedia.net and held in the Montante Center at Canisius College, featured four panelists.
On the pro side were Larry Quinn, an Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. board member, and Carl Paladino, chief executive officer of Ellicott Development.
Questioning the multimillion-dollar public subsidy for the project and proposed placement of the store were preservationist Scot Fisher and James Ostrowski, a Buffalo lawyer and head of the taxpayer group Free Buffalo.
Quinn, who a decade ago spearheaded the HSBC Arena project, defended the use of public money to lure Bass Pro, asserting that the $25 million state subsidy will pay for itself 10 times over in the coming years.
"The real public subsidy is the more than a half-billion dollars Buffalo receives in state aid every year," Quinn said.
The goal of the project, he said, includes reviving downtown by connecting it to the waterfront.
Fisher, a partner in the effort to restore the former Delaware Asbury United Methodist Church building, said he did not object to bringing Bass Pro downtown but questioned why it had to be located on the historic Central Wharf, which, he argued, is a historic site.
"It's a great idea. Just don't put it on the Erie Canal Harbor," Fisher said.
Public consensus was reached three years ago on a history-based plan that called for a 12-acre park and smaller-scaled development along the wharf, he added.
Ostrowski took issue with the idea of a public authority like the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. -- which, he said, is not accountable to anyone for its decisions -- calling the shots. He also objected to attracting Bass Pro with public subsidies.
"Corporate welfare has been failing us for 47 years. It's illegal. It's wrong for the government to pick winners because that money is coming out of the pockets of the taxpayers," Ostrowski said.
Politicians and bureaucrats, he added, lack the competency to decide what businesses will succeed in the marketplace.
"We can't get out of our own way. We've come to live in fantasy announcements," Paladino said, referring to the many grandiose plans that never were realized.
The forum, which was moderated by Stefan Mychajliw, a WGRZ-TV Channel 2 News reporter who provided an opportunity for questioning the panelists.