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January > Buffalo Waterfront Bass Pro

Buffalo, N.Y., pins hopes of canal-side rejuvenation on Bass Pro Shops

By Fran LeFort

Shopping Centers Today/International Council of Shopping Centers

These days the former Memorial Auditorium stadium in Buffalo, N.Y., dark for a decade, is a memorial as much to the city's vibrant past as to the World War II dead for which it was named. But plans are afoot to replace the facility - once home to the Buffalo Braves and Buffalo Sabres - with a sporting venue of an entirely different kind, one that will anchor the revitalization of Buffalo's historic Erie Canal District, proponents say.

Bass Pro Shops is eyeing The Aud, as the arena is now called, as a site for a 250,000-square-foot Bass Pro retail-entertainment center. At that size, it would be the sporting goods retailer's third largest, a mecca for sports fans of another variety, equipping them for fishing, hunting, archery, hiking, camping, boating and similar activities.

The store would anchor a $123 million waterfront development project that would provide a boardwalk promenade from which Bass Pro employees would drop boats for test runs. It would also be host to an Erie Canal-Great Lakes Heritage Museum, a parking garage, restaurants, nightlife and upscale retailers

Fishing for Bass Pro
Springfield, Mo.-based Bass Pro is certainly not the project's only component, but it is nonetheless an important one. The oft-called destination retailer has a reputation for turning around blighted areas by prompting other shops, restaurants and even hotels to follow on its coattails. People drive hundreds of miles to Bass Pro stores to shop, eat and view museum-quality animal reproductions and to see vintage hunting and fishing gear on display.

The proof lies some 130 miles east, in the Finger Lakes region of Auburn, N.Y. A comparatively smaller Bass Pro store opened in June of last year to much fanfare and hype. The once-dying Fingerlakes Mall that the 85,000-square-foot store calls home and the surrounding area are both now booming.

Just five years ago the occupancy rate at Fingerlakes Mall hit an all-time low, dipping below 50 percent. Now it is 80 percent and rising. Thirty new retailers and eateries have joined the mix there, including national retailers PacSun and Aeropostale. And overall sales are up 20 percent, with some areas enjoying even higher jumps. Food court sales, for example, have spiked between 50 and 60 percent, while some national chains are up roughly 40 percent. Mall officials estimate that foot traffic has doubled to 2 million a year.

"Bass Pro was pretty much the single tenant we had targeted as being the one that could turn the property around," said Greg Greenfield, president of Atlanta-based Greg Greenfield & Associates, which represents a group of investors that owns the mall. "We thought it was going to be somewhat of a long shot, but it turned out to be the grand-slam home run, highest-impact tenant in the whole universe."

Bass Pro draws customers from 100 miles and beyond, he says - not bad for a mall that previously drew them from the immediate Auburn area, which is part of a county of just 81,900 residents.

The mall's rent per square foot averaged $187 before Bass Pro arrived, but it now stands at $230, says Jane Benefield, asset manager at Greg Greenfield. "I've been involved in other renovations or redevelopments - adding an anchor or something like that," Benefield said. "But nothing that has seen this kind of revitalization in sales and occupancy and rent."

And it keeps getting better. The mall"s cinema has changed hands and is to expand from four screens to eight. Marriott Corp. says it expects to complete construction within a year of an $18 million, 130-room SpringHill Suites hotel on an adjoining property, and a Houlihan"s restaurant will be built there too.

Meanwhile, Syracuse, N.Y.-based Cameron Group plans to build a 440,000-square-foot big-box shopping plaza across the street. Furthermore, two national restaurant chains are expected to announce by year-end that they will build on two of the three acre-plus outparcels in front of the mall.

You lookin? for us?
Bass Pro's appeal has as much to do with its entertainment value as its retail offerings. In addition to a 20,000-gallon aquarium containing fish native to the area, the store regularly sponsors archery classes, fishing instruction using the aquarium and a huge outdoor pond, and other special events. The decor includes murals and stuffed animals, with one scene resembling the nearby Montezuma Wildlife Refuge. Elsewhere there?s a seaplane suspended in front of a wall on which there?s a landscape mural of Lake Ontario. These and other attractions draw visitors from as far away as Canada and even Europe.

"They'll call and say they're coming through the area and want to stop at the mall," said mall manager Gina Speno. "When they'd call before, we'd say, 'Are you looking for the outlet center up the thruway?'  We didn't have tours before at all."

That one retailer could have made this much difference is impressive, she says. "It's not your typical retailer," Speno said. "They are a destination, and when they open up they don't just go away, have one grand-opening sale and that's it. They're very innovative in what they do, and they're constantly drawing people in."

Speno added with some pride, "We're still the only Bass Pro Shops in New York state, and we just love to brag about that." But if Buffalo's plans materialize, she will not be able to brag about it for too much longer.

Not that anything is set in stone yet. Bass Pro spokesman Larry Whiteley points out that only a "memo of understanding" has been signed so far.

"We're still looking at all the things to be done," Whiteley said. "That's a huge project; I can't definitely tell you when. It's a matter of a business or design team deciding how we can do this, and if we can do this right. This is a big step, and there are a lot of ducks to get in a row."

But there is momentum. Gov. George Pataki, Bass Pro executives and others have detailed not only the store's size and employee count (400), but also the inclusion of a 12,000-square-foot restaurant and possibly a hotel, as well as other improvements along the waterfront development. The plan calls for some $67 million from Bass Pro and an additional $66 million from government sources - $31 million in federal funds, $21 million from the state and $14 million from Erie County and the city of Buffalo.

"There are a significant amount of man-hours and dollars committed here," said Michael Licata, senior business developer at the Erie County Industrial Development Agency. "I suppose if you want to look on the pessimistic side, it's not a deal until it's a deal. On the optimistic side, does anybody commit this kind of hours and time here and not follow through? No. In the amount of commitment of time, it's been years now."

Thomas Kucharski, president of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, a not-for-profit group of public and private entities dedicated to regional business development, expresses similar sentiments. "The only thing that can throw this off track is if we find something from an environmental standpoint or structure of lease terms," he said. "Any of those types of intangibles can certainly throw the project off, or an unforeseen cost circumstance which we don't anticipate."

Breathless in Buffalo
Kucharski says officials are doing all they can to maintain Bass Pro's interest. "They're on a steep growth curve right now," he said. "They've opened six stores in the past two months. We're doing what we can to remove any disincentives or any doubt, so that we?ll go to the next step here."

Whiteley insists Bass Pro does not shy away from the challenges of entering blighted areas.

"We do a lot of the historical-type things," said Whitely. "We've even taken over toxic-waste areas and turned it into a big retail area. We know we can help revitalize areas like that." He points to the Auburn store and to one in Savannah, Ga. "That's why they want us there and are willing to help us with tax incentives and infrastructure to get us there," he said.

Buffalo's officials are keeping their fingers crossed, because this could be the city's biggest break in a long time.

"Bass Pro is the absolute anchor," said Kucharski. "It's great to have the restoration of the Erie Canal. That's great from a historical perspective. It's nice to hear there are almost 4,000 more people living downtown than five years ago, but if there isn't that major attraction - entertainment - that ancillary development can build off of, you have a hard time making a compelling case for other retailers to be downtown." He envisions a retail-entertainment village, a four- or five-block area with upscale shopping and "a bunch of restaurants and entertainment that you can't find anywhere in the region, things that are unique to the downtown."

Of the first batch of detailed, customized offerings that went out to about 90 retailers, Kucharski's group got five expressions of serious interest and a further 10 requests for additional information. If Bass Pro agrees to come, officials expect this interest to pick up considerably.

There is a hush not only in the old stadium, but also in City Hall, as officials wait for Bass Pro's next move.