Despite Skepticism, Bass Pro to be a part of Canal Side Plan

Hearing set tonight on waterfront project

Bass Pro remains determined to build a store in Buffalo, the president of the giant retailer said Monday night, on the eve of a public hearing about the city’s evolving Canal Side project.

“Bass Pro is fully committed to coming to Buffalo, and we are coming unless something happens to the project that I don’t envision at all,” Jim Hagale told The Buffalo News.

“I just don’t foresee any stumbling blocks left,” he said.

The question of whether Bass Pro ever would open a Buffalo location has been met with considerable public skepticism through the years.

The company had announced it was coming in 2002 but has yet to sign a legally binding contract despite the store’s looming presence in all of the waterfront’s design plans.

Officials with Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., which is overseeing the project, said earlier in the day that while they were confident of Bass Pro’s commitment, it still was not a done deal.

Hagale spoke to The News after reports circulated earlier Monday that the retailer is not currently building any stores and had laid off six workers in its design and development department.

He tamped down any suggestion that Bass Pro was under financial strain to renege on projects, saying the company simply had slowed development even as the plug recently was pulled on a planned Bass Pro store in Augusta, Ga.

“Yes, it has taken longer than I think people would like,” Hagale said about Buffalo. “But I think what has been done with the project is going to be spectacular.”

He said Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris’ visit to Buffalo in August left him “more enthused about the project in total than he had ever been, and our participation in it.”

The Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store is expected to be two stories tall and occupy 130,000 square feet. Hagale said nothing prevented the Springfield, Mo.-based company from signing a binding agreement.

That’s something Erie Canal Harbor Development officials, who are overseeing the project, have said they expect within 30 days after the environmental review is completed. That work could be done as early as December or January, they said.

Jordan Levy, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.’s chairman, said he remained optimistic Bass Pro would be the anchor tenant for the Canal Side project, which he hopes will open in May 2011. Canal Side would occupy the 5-acre site of the former Memorial Auditorium, part of the overall 20-acre project that includes the historic area around Erie Canal Harbor.

“I believe Bass Pro is fully committed to this project and has been in my 2ù years here. They believe this can be one of their defining projects in the country,” Levy said.

“But until it is signed, sealed and delvered,” he added, “I’m going to stay up at night worrying about it.”

Levy acknowledged the public’s skepticism.

“I keep saying that the public has Bass Pro fatigue. I don’t blame them.”

The Canal Side project, with its mix of public, retail and entertainment space that uses the Erie Canal as its unifying theme, will be discussed at a 6 p.m. hearing today Tuesday in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery auditorium.

The public opportunity to comment on the project, which was unveiled last December and continues to be refined, is part of the required environmental review process.

“We’re getting to a point where we’re now ready for prime time, and [today] we’ll show this to the public and see how people react to the changes and modifications that we have made that we’re very excited about,” Levy said.

Stanton Eckstut, the New York City-based lead architect who worked on Battery Park City, said the project was potentially “transformative,” yet informal, easy to access and designed to be open all year.

“It’s a design that is one of a kind, unique in the world,” Eckstut said of the Erie Canal- themed project. “It’s all about streets and public environments.”

The project envisions several thematic districts to appeal to different demographics, which Eckstut said would not have the look or feel of a mall.

One of Canal Side’s focal points is the octagon-shaped Canal Side Commons, projected to be a major gathering spot. The lower-level Canal Side Hall would provide food kiosks and a display area.

A children’s museum is now envisioned on the site. So is a circular aquarium. Space for another major tenant also is forecast.

The Webster block, now a surface parking lot, and the former Donovan State Office Building are seen as potential sites for a hotel.

Four parking ramps are planned to provide about 2,500 parking spaces along the site’s perimeter.

These are some of the issues the public will be able to discuss tonight at the public hearing.

Levy said issued raised at past meetings brought about several changes to the previously unveiled project.

Those include the lowering the canals water levels, increasing public access to the site and making a greater commitment to green design principles.

“It’s a great project. If you’re for Buffalo, you’re for this project. That’s what this is all about,” said Thomas P. Dee, the development corporation’s president, and an ardent supporter of the project.

“It’s bringing the water to the people, and the people to the water. It’s spectacular.”

The Buffalo News, October 20, 2009